Thursday, August 6, 2020

Honey, they shrunk the conventions -- Aug. 6, 2020 column


Both political parties are scrambling to put together national political conventions virtually, on the spur of the moment, after throwing out long-developed plans for the usual in-person gatherings.

What could go wrong?

The way 2020 is going, it’s not hard to imagine the conventions as more trial and tribulation.

Democrats will celebrate at a social distance Aug. 17 through 20, and Republicans with a hybrid of in-person and remote events, Aug. 24 through 27.

Democrats and Republicans each initially expected upwards of 50,000 delegates, media, elected officials and celebrities to converge as they formally nominate their candidates for president and vice president.

But the novel coronavirus upended the coronations. As few as a couple hundred people may attend each convention in person. There could be more protesters than conventioneers.

The only smidgen of suspense is who Joe Biden’s running mate will be, and he’s likely to announce his choice beforehand.

President Donald Trump yanked the Republican convention from Charlotte when North Carolina’s sensible Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper refused to say Trump could fill up the convention hall.

Trump moved the shindig to Jacksonville, then canceled that “celebration” when COVID-19 cases surged in Florida.

Republican officials still plan to formally nominate Trump in Charlotte but are considering other cities for parts of their spectacle. Trump may deliver his acceptance speech from the White House South Lawn, in a huge break from tradition.

Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans say it’s possibly illegal and at least unethical to use the White House for political gatherings, though Democrats grumble Trump gives campaign speeches masquerading as news conferences at the White House nearly every day.

The pandemic has kept Biden close to home, but he was expected to break out and travel to Milwaukee to give his acceptance speech. He announced Wednesday he won’t even go to his own convention.

After consulting with health advisers, Biden decided the safe and responsible move was to give the most important speech of his life from Delaware. Other top Democratic speakers also will speak remotely.

The convention will still be “exciting,” Biden promised, offering no details.

Since COVID-19 has made 2020 one long root canal, it’s not surprising the national conventions would be strange. How strange? Even the police bailed.

In Milwaukee, more than 100 police agencies from Wisconsin and around the country that had planned to provide security quit after the Milwaukee police chief said they could not use tear gas or pepper spray to subdue protesters at the Democratic convention.

Before Trump pulled the plug on Jacksonville, the mayor as well as the local sheriff said Republicans lacked an adequate security plan for the convention and they couldn’t guarantee security.

So, what will the conventions look like? A few details are trickling out.

The GOP plans to rebrand as “the party of real, hardworking Americans.” A “nightly surprise” at 10 will feature guests and themes around “the forgotten men and women of America,” Axios reported, citing two senior Trump campaign officials.

Monday’s theme is America as “a land of heroes,” Tuesday “land of promise,” Wednesday “land of opportunity” and Thursday “land of greatness” with Trump’s plans for “the great American comeback,” Axios reported.

Democrats say they will have a “custom virtual video control room” designed to take in hundreds of live and recorded feeds from around the country at their Convention Across America that now will be “anchored” in Milwaukee.

Unlike previous conventions when speakers drone on day and night, Democrats plan only two hours of programming a night.

For decades, the value of the conventions has dwindled. Candidates clinch their nomination early, and the thousands of delegates and alternates in funny hats are little more than props for prime-time infomercials. That will be especially true for this year’s shrinking conventions.

But during the pandemic, with most of us stuck at home, Americans may enjoy watching makeshift political performances. Typically, voters watch only the party they already support, so no minds are likely to be changed.

What ultimately will be important is that the conventions signal the start of the fall campaign. No matter how jerry-rigged the conventions are, once they end it will be time to get serious.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Be smart. Mask up! -- July 30, 2020 column


Near a neighborhood park in Alexandria, a yard sign reads: “Don’t be Stupid. Make America Healthy Again. Wear a Facemask!”

The sign is bipartisan -- half blue and half red -- and diverse. At the bottom an assortment of faces wears masks.

Back home, Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is on TV, telling me: “Wear a mask.”

“We have the power – the American people do – to slow the spread of this virus,” he said Thursday on NBC’s Today show.

All over social media, celebrities post selfies wearing masks and use the hashtag #wearadamnmask. It’s hard not to get the message.

More than 150,000 Americans have perished from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 4.4 million people in the United States have been infected.

With the economy in distress, everyone wants to get to some sort of “new normal” life, whatever that may be, but the virus shows no sign of easing its vicious grip on the United States.

There’s no vaccine or treatment yet, and polls indicate many people worry a vaccine developed at “warp speed” may be unsafe. So states, companies and individuals hunker down.

Google announced Tuesday it would not bring employees back to their offices until next July at the earliest. It was the first big company to delay reopening that long but likely won’t be the last.

Meanwhile, the chasm grows between those who can safely work at home and those who must return to a dangerous workplace.

It would be easier to fight the disease if people broke out in a bright red coronavirus rash, but those without symptoms pass the disease to others.

And that’s why the tried-and-true advice for stopping the spread still holds. Wear a facial covering, keep six feet of social distance and wash hands frequently.

We know if we are asymptomatic and wear a mask, it helps protect others. If others also wear a mask, we protect each other.

Many stores, restaurants and other establishments now require customers to wear masks – for which millions of us are grateful. Don’t bother calling me a “sheeple,” easily led by the government. I’m not buying it.

Even President Donald Trump finally wore a mask. He says he usually doesn’t need one because he’s tested frequently, unlike most Americans. He and anyone he comes in close contact with receive their results quickly. Most Americans must wait days or a week for results, which renders contact tracing ineffective.

And that brings us to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. The anti-masker was tested Wednesday before he was supposed to fly on Air Force One with Trump.

When his test came back positive, Gohmert said he “can’t help but wonder” whether wearing a mask and taking it on and off somehow caused him to breathe in the virus.

“We don’t have any evidence that’s the case,” FDA’s Hahn said. “Our data show people should wear masks.”

Gohmert said he’s “all in” on hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug Trump has again been touting, despite it’s having been discredited by medical experts as a treatment for COVID-19. The drug can have serious side effects, affecting heart rhythms.

In the wake of Gohmert’s potentially infecting his staff and other members of Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered members to wear masks on the House floor except when recognized to speak.

I get that Americans hate being told what to do and masks – or their lack -- have become a political statement. We’ve seen the videos of unhinged people in stores going ballistic when asked to put on a mask.

But there’s no constitutional right to infect the front-line hero who rings up your chips and beer. It’s no show of personal liberty to infect your grandmother. Remember, 80% of the people who have died of COVID-19 are over 65.

Not wearing a mask is almost as dumb as attending a COVID-19 party because you think COVID is a hoax, as a 30-year-old man in Texas reportedly did. Shortly before he died of the disease, he told his nurse he’d made a mistake.

So, please be smart. Wear a mask. You might save someone’s life – and someone else might save yours.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Summertime when ice wasn't easy -- July 23, 2020 column


Of all the momentous issues with which the founding fathers had to grapple, one of the most perplexing was ice.

In his letters, George Washington often expressed his frustrations about being unable to preserve ice, historians at Mount Vernon tell us.

Writing his friend Robert Morris from Mount Vernon on June 2, 1784, Washington confided the ice in his icehouse is “is gone already,” and asked Morris to send a description of the size, manner of building and management of his icehouse in Pennsylvania.

“My house was filled chiefly with Snow,” Washington added, asking Morris if he had tried keeping snow and if he thought snow was key to Washington’s defeat.

Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, quickly obliged. From Philadelphia on June 15, he wrote nearly 600 words of detailed description of his icehouse, which, in case you’re wondering, was 16-feet square and 18-feet deep, with two sets of stone walls, wood and straw above and gravel below.

Morris tells Washington he tried saving snow one year and “lost it in June,” but he can keep ice from winter until the next October or November. If the icehouse were bigger, ice would last until Christmas, he thinks, and if the walls were lined with straw, even longer.

Morris further recommends ice be broken into small pieces and pounded with heavy clubs so it consolidates into a mass so solid it requires a chisel or axe to cut off pieces.

So, Washington had his slaves rebuild his icehouse on Morris’s model and kept tinkering with the design. If you visit Mount Vernon, you can see his icehouse cut into a hillside.

Slaves also did the hard and dangerous work of hauling large blocks of ice from the frigid Potomac River in the dead of winter, pulling the blocks to shore, dragging them to the icehouse and soaking them with water, so they’d freeze into a mound, historians tell us.

And that is how the father of our country and his wife came to enjoy cool drinks and iced cream, as it was then called, long after winter had passed.

“In the warm season, ice is the most agreeable thing we can have,” Martha Washington wrote in 1793. (I’ve updated 18th century spellings and punctuation for clarity.) She loved entertaining women friends at weekly parties with ice cream and lemonade.

Washington’s icehouse was for his personal use as were icehouses built for later presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but only the very rich could afford their own.

In 1793, an enterprising tavern owner built an ice well in Alexandria, a few miles from Mount Vernon. City Tavern, now known as Gadsby’s Tavern, at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets, offered the finest accommodations of the era, so, of course, it needed ice for guests.

That ice well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough for the tavern and local people who wished to buy it. In 1805, tavern owner John Gadsby sold ice for 8 cents a pound.

Magnificently restored a few years ago, the ice well has received several preservation design awards and is a magnet for visitors who peer for free into the subterranean well from the city sidewalk.

Today, we can’t help being struck not only by how much colder winters were in the 18th century but also by the amount of thought, labor and perseverance needed to thwart the process of melting.

In the past, the stories of early achievements of our young country failed to recognize the work of enslaved people. Times have changed, and we now understand much of our celebrated progress was won through the muscle and backs of the enslaved.

Preserving ice enabled the fortunate few to keep fresh meats longer and have more variety in their diet. In time, the treat became an expectation.

Ice is still transitory, of course, but these days we hardly worry about it melting. More cubes are always popping out of the icemaker in the fridge -- until the icemaker stops working and human intervention must once again be employed, in the form of low-tech ice trays.

We moderns worry about many things, but ice isn’t one of them. And for that we all can be grateful in the sizzling summer of 2020.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Vote by mail -- yes, but . . . July 16, 2020 column


The old adage about voting “early and often” may be half true this Election Day.

With more voters than ever likely to cast absentee ballots Nov. 3, more will be relying on the U.S. Postal Service. Voting early is advisable.

Major operational changes the new postmaster general is making that could slow mail service are disconcerting, especially as problems with undelivered absentee ballots already have popped up around the country during primary season.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told postal employees Monday in memos obtained and verified by The Washington Post the agency must operate more like a private business, would prohibit overtime and curtail other measures post offices use to deliver mail when understaffed.

Traditionally, the postal service has been run as a service, going the extra mile, so to speak, to make multiple trips to deliver letters and packages rather than leaving them in distribution centers overnight. No more.

“If plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day,” a memo titled “New PMG’s [Postmaster General’s] expectations and plan” said, the Post reported.

Congressional allies of the Postal Service were quick to criticize the changes.

“If these reports are accurate, Trump and his cronies are openly seeking to destroy the post office during the worst public health crisis in a century,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said in a statement.

“With states now reliant on voting by mail to continue elections during the pandemic, the destabilizing of the post office is a direct attack on American democracy itself,” said Pascrell.

DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and Trump mega-donor, took over as postmaster general in June at a critical time. President Donald Trump in April called the Postal Service “a joke” and said it should quadruple its package delivery fees, a move apparently aimed at Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post.

The beleaguered Postal Service is actually faring better financially during the pandemic because of the strong demand for package deliveries. Companies often use the postal service for “last mile” local deliveries.

But even before the latest cost-cutting measures, the Postal Service has struggled to adjust to a surge in absentee ballots. In 2020, many more voters are choosing to vote from home rather than stand in long lines.

In Dallas, some voters who had mailed in their absentee ballots for Tuesday’s elections unaccountably received them back only a day or two before the election, The Dallas Morning News reported.

In Wisconsin, three tubs of absentee ballot were found at a Milwaukee post office after the polls closed for the April 7 election. In addition, absentee ballots requested were not delivered and hundreds more mailed by voters were not postmarked.

Requests for absentee ballots in Wisconsin have soared 440% since 2016, a Postal Service inspector general report found, adding that date changes for mailing and completing ballots due to the coronavirus also complicated the spring elections.

The IG report identified potential nationwide issues it said could affect future elections. Among them: Some states set too-short deadlines to request absentee ballots, ballots lack mail-tracking technology and poor communication between the Postal Service and election offices.

About half the states have deadlines to request ballots of less than a week before Election Day. These deadlines “put ballots at high risk of not being delivered to voters before an election,” the report warned.

In Virginia, the deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is 5 p.m. Oct. 23, but a voter can request an absentee ballot online or vote in person at their local registrar’s office 45 days before Election Day. You no longer need a reason to vote early in person or to cast an absentee ballot.

If you’re returning your ballot by mail, it must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your registrar by noon on the third day after the election. Rules are slightly different for first time voters. See Virginia rules.  

No one knows what the novel coronavirus will be doing Nov. 3. So, don’t wait until the last minute. Vote early. America needs every ballot to count.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Reopen schools? Washington doesn't know best -- July 9, 2020 column


When it comes to managing schools, Thomas Jefferson had it right when he said: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

One size doesn’t fit all, especially during a raging pandemic. 

And yet, President Donald Trump and his allies are pressuring schools across the country to do things Trump’s way.

The president wants all schools to fully open in person this fall. He has threatened to withhold federal funds from school districts that take a more cautious approach.

Democrats and teachers’ groups say they want to reopen schools but do so safely, perhaps with some online classes.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of playing politics. In an election year? Say it isn’t so.

Whatever happened to local control?

Trump was all-in on local control when it came to making hard decisions about shutting businesses down or even wearing face coverings to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. He left it up to governors and local officials.

Had he articulated a national strategy of testing, contact tracing and treatment, we might have contained the virus, as some European countries have done.

Instead, because Trump believes his re-election depends on a recovered economy, he urged states to reopen, disregarding federal guidelines for doing so safely. This, sadly, led to a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in states that followed his edicts.

Now, he has both feet in local schools.

Trump again refuses to listen to public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, which issued guidelines for reopening schools.

“I disagree with the @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence then announced the CDC would issue “a new set of tools” in a few days.

I’ve taken a look at the existing school guidelines, which set out three levels of risk. You don’t need a medical degree to know the lowest is virtual-only classes and events, highest is full-sized, in-person classes and events, and the middle involves students staying with the same teacher all day.

The current guidelines prescribe cleaning, physical distancing and planning protocols with at least a dozen instances of wiggle words like “if feasible” and “when possible.”

For example, “Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

The first paragraph of the seven-page guidelines emphasizes: “These considerations are meant to supplement – not replace – any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply.” (Bold-face words are in the original.)

Trump still could take the lead in insisting that more federal funds go to schools so they can buy the electronic devices needed so kids don’t have to share as well as cleaning and other supplies.

Schools also may need to hire staff. It’s not fair to ask overworked teachers who are risking their lives in the classroom also to disinfect the playground equipment.

House Democrats included $100 billion in funding to support schools in the relief bill that passed in May, but Senate Republicans nixed the money.

New York City and other school systems have decided full, in-person education is too risky.

Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos specifically scorned Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest in the nation with 189,000 students, for offering parents a choice of fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.

Most of Virginia’s cases and deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, have occurred in Fairfax and other Northern Virginia counties.

But other parts of the state have had few, if any, virus deaths. Decisions about 
reopening schools likely will differ, and they should, depending on risk to public health.  

One size doesn’t fit all for the entire country nor is it a good idea for a whole state.

Let local school districts decide how to reopen without undue pressure from Washington. They know best their local needs.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A terrible idea gets worse -- July 2, 2020 column


President Donald Trump has devoted much of his 3 ½ years in office to painting over the name of Barack Obama.
Trump has sought to wipe out Obama’s efforts to de-nuke Iran, fight climate change, protect the environment, help the young Dreamers, and regulate Wall Street, among other things.
But nowhere is Trump’s obsession with obliterating his predecessor’s legacy more mystifying and confounding than with Obamacare. His mania to undo all things Obama could cost upwards of 20 million Americans their health insurance during a pandemic.
Trump repeatedly has promised to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act and replace it with a better, cheaper plan that retains its popular provisions.

For example, in June 2019, Trump said in an ABC News interview he’d propose “in about two months, maybe less” a “phenomenal” health plan that would be “less expensive than Obamacare by a lot.”

We’re still waiting.  

Obamacare is not perfect, and supporters want to mend it. Critics complain premiums are too high. Some people get subsidies to help defray the cost, but not all.
On the plus side, the 2010 law protects women from being charged more than men and people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage. It provides free health screenings and allows children up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ plans.
The Trump administration filed a brief June 25 in the Supreme Court, saying the entire ACA “must fall” because Congress in 2017 eliminated the financial penalty for those who fail to buy health insurance.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are surging around the country, and hospitals in some states are filling up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Tuesday the number of cases could soon jump from 40,000 a day now to 100,000 a day.
Fortunately, Obamacare remains in place. About half a million people have signed up for coverage in special enrollments as they’ve lost their jobs and their health insurance.
The court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas in October at the earliest, so Obamacare could loom large just before the election. A ruling is expected by next spring or early summer.
Democratic candidates who rode the health care horse to victory in 2018, gaining control of the House, are saddling up again. The House Tuesday approved an Obamacare expansion in a vote largely along party lines. It was symbolic as the measure is dead in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Democrats remind voters if they contract and survive COVID-19 in a world without Obamacare they could lose their health insurance or it could be priced beyond their means – because they’d have a pre-existing condition. COVID-19 survivors often have impaired lungs and other organs. Survivors of cancer and other diseases could face a similar crisis.
Trump’s base, including the 18 red states hoping to overturn the ACA, are delighted Trump is still sticking it to Obamacare, but Republican candidates, especially in key Senate races, are being left high and dry.
Democrats need only three seats to retake the Senate if  Democrat Joe Biden wins the White House, four if Trump is re-elected. Some Republican candidates are scrambling to position themselves as defenders of health care.
Analysts on the right concede the timing of the administration’s brief and Supreme Court action on Obamacare is terrible for GOP candidates. The Trump re-election campaign hammers on Democrats’ “Bernie Sanders-inspired, socialist health care agenda,” and barely mentions Obamacare.
Don’t expect a Trump plan before November. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Sunday there would be none until after the court rules and a new Congress is in place.
What the court will do is anyone’s guess. Chief Justice John Roberts saved Obamacare in 2012. He wrote the 5 to 4 majority opinion saying the individual mandate, a requirement that most Americans have insurance or pay a penalty, was within Congress’s power to tax.

The Republican-controlled Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty, which the law’s opponents contend makes the law unconstitutional.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to push to eliminate a law that guarantees millions of Americans health insurance, no matter whose name is on it.  
 ©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Home is where the festival is -- June 25, 2020 column


One of summer’s pleasures in Washington is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Since 1967, for about 10 days around July 4, musicians, dancers, artisans, cooks and storytellers have entertained large, sweaty crowds on the National Mall.

Not this year. Like most events, the folk festival has wisely moved online because of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Even though the festival took place outdoors and many people are eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, those who can avoid risking their health should.

For some of us, the more things open, the more we want to stay home.

I’m in this camp, although the urge to nest makes me feel guilty. As a freelance journalist, I work from home, but millions of Americans have been out of work for months. The economy depends on consumers for recovery.

With no national strategy for a safe reopening, though, people suffer when states pretend the virus doesn’t exist and rush back to business.  

New coronavirus cases are surging nationwide. In 33 states, from South Carolina to Oklahoma to Washington, the number of cases from the most recent week is  higher than the two-week average, a Wall Street Journal analysis released Thursday found. That compares with 21 states at the start of June.

Although the White House insists case numbers are up because we’re testing more, some states are swamped with record numbers of hospitalizations for COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes.

While death rates overall have declined, public health officials warn deaths typically lag hospitalizations by weeks.

Governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, having tamed the spread in their states, yanked the welcome mat for visitors from Arizona, Florida, North and South Carolina, Texas and a handful of other states with high per person infection rates. They’ll need to quarantine for 14 days.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged residents to wear a mask, wash hands, maintain safe distance, and “importantly, because the spread is so rapid right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home unless you need to go out.”

And, he emphasized: “The safest place for you is at your home.”

The safest place for everyone is at home, even in Virginia where rates of infections and deaths trended down in June. Most of Virginia’s nearly 60,000 infections and 1,700 deaths are in Northern Virginia.

Since the federal government hasn’t drawn up workplace safety rules for the coronavirus era, Virginia is working on such rules, a good move.

“Getting back to normality is going to be a gradual, step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a House panel Wednesday.

Caution definitely seems thrown to the winds in Old Town Alexandria, where I live. Crowds throng the Potomac waterfront to enjoy drinks and meals at tables set out on King Street, where a block is closed to car traffic.

It’s a celebratory scene, as though the virus is history. Few walking around wear masks and most ignore social distancing advice.

And that was before Phase 3, which, as of July 1 allows groups of 250 to gather, and stores and restaurants no longer have limits on the number of customers.

The District of Columbia is still in Phase 2, and Smithsonian museums remain closed.

Yet the Smithsonian Folk Festival Beyondthe Mall continues online through July 5.

Programs center on solutions to social and environmental problems with a focus on the United Arab Emirates, Northeast Brazil and the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon. 

I’m a long-time fan of the free festival but to me it lost something when it shifted from being the Festival of American Folklife in 1999 to international topics.

Fortunately, the American FolklifeCenter has many programs online, including a Homegrown Concerts series through September. Next at noon July 1 is folksinger John McCutcheon.

So, take advantage of festival offerings online. Staying home for now makes sense and has summer pleasures of its own. Stay safe and cool.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.