Thursday, October 28, 2021

Treat: A not-so-spooky Halloween -- Oct. 28, 2021 column


Americans are going out this Halloween. All out.

Rising in yards and at homes to haunt – and delight – us are a host of ghosts, wealth of witches, bevy of bats and bones, surplus of spiders, skeletons and skulls, and a trove of tombstones.

We’re getting our costumes and pets’ costumes ready. We’re going to parties again. And, we’re spending.

Halloween-related spending is expected to reach an all-time high of $10.14 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey.

On average, consumers plan to spend $102.74 on costumes, candy, decorations and greeting cards -- $10 more than last year.

Last year, with COVID-19 raging and no vaccine available, most communities gave Halloween a wide berth. This year, with millions of us fully vaccinated, receiving booster shots and having recovered from COVID-19, the government invites Americans to enjoy Halloween.

“I would say, put on those costumes, stay outside and enjoy your trick-or-treating,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said on Fox News Sunday.

Having been scared for real for so long, we’re evidently ready to enjoy being scared for fun. Spooky is not so spooky.

Dr. Walensky did, however, offer a cautionary note: If you’re unvaccinated, you still need to protect yourself and others.

“I wouldn’t gather in large settings outside and do screaming like you are seeing in those football games if you are unvaccinated, those kids that are unvaccinated,” she said, “but if you are spread out, doing your trick-or-treating, that should be very safe for your children.”

The infection rate has dropped 50% since September in the United States, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. More than 70,000 COVID-19 cases and about 1,500 deaths are still being reported each day. We have lost more than 740,000 people to the disease.

Even with COVID sticking around, we all yearn to get back to normal. And yet there’s a nagging doubt we may be, Halloween notwithstanding, whistling past the graveyard.

Much remains unknown about the insidious coronavirus. A new, highly contagious delta subvariant known as “delta plus” or AY.4.2 is surging in Great Britain, and the United Kingdom’s science adviser predicts “a pretty difficult winter ahead of us.”

Delta plus is believed to spread more easily than the delta variant but to cause no more serious illness. Vaccinations are effective in reducing severity of disease, authorities say.

So far, delta plus makes up only one-tenth of a percent of the COVID cases here. Some localities are easing mask and other restrictions.

But around the world, countries that thought their high vaccination rates would allow life to return to normal have been hit with outbreaks. After a spike in cases, Singapore last week extended some restrictions until next month, reimposing a limit of parties of two people dining out.

Russia, which reportedly set a new daily record for cases this week, has closed schools and is shutting down workplaces nationwide for a week. Only essential stores like pharmacies and groceries are allowed open.

Some cities in China have also tightened rules on activities as cases have risen.

No one wants to reinstate lockdowns here, and some states vow to stay open no matter what. So, how do we live with COVID?

The best path to a new normal is vaccinations, and yet more than 60 million of us still refuse. They need to wear masks in public indoor settings, CDC says, although resisters probably resist that precaution as well.

Other tips: Those who are fully vaccinated still should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission rates or if someone in their household is more susceptible to illness.

Outdoor activities are safer than those indoors, and we should all avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.

Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot, with rare exceptions. Those who are unvaccinated against COVID should particularly get a flu shot. And, no, the flu vaccine cannot cause the flu.  

As we head into the holidays, each of us can, and should, do our part to make our world a little safer. Give friends and family members peace of mind with vaccinations and, if applicable, a booster.

And mask up. They’re not just for Halloween.  

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Signed, sealed, delivered -- seven months late -- Oct. 21, 2021 column


An “OFFICIAL BUSINESS” brown envelope from the United States Postal Inspection Service arrived in the mail the other day.

“Dear Postal Customer: The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has recovered stolen mail bearing your name and address. The suspect(s) were identified and prosecuted,” the letter inside said.

“It was determined he/she is not a postal employee and is not affiliated with the Postal Service in any way. The original mail is being returned to you in the condition in which it was recovered.”

With the letter was a sympathy card addressed to me about my dad, who died in February. The card was postmarked Feb. 26 in Lubbock, Texas. The envelope had been sliced open, but the card was intact.

I was amazed, and grateful, postal inspectors had gone to the trouble to deliver a condolence card after seven months.

The inspection service is the U.S. Postal Service’s law enforcement arm and the first federal law enforcement agency. Ben Franklin appointed the first of what would become postal inspectors in 1775.

Today the postal service has many problems, largely stemming from bad management at the top, so it’s a pleasant surprise when something goes right.

Mail theft may seem like a crime out of the 19th century Wild West, when robbers on horseback stopped stagecoaches and made off with gold, cash and bank transfers.

In 2021, perps see opportunity in greeting cards and business envelopes for cash, checks, money orders or gift cards. None that was in the card to me, which contained only kind words.

The inspection service’s letter included a case number, and I searched online to no avail. But I did find many news stories about people around the country being charged with mail theft. One report caught my eye.

A man, 22, and woman, 35, were indicted Oct. 15 in Lubbock and charged with conspiracy to possess stolen mail and possessing stolen mail.

The two, who worked for a contractor that loads USPS mail on and off planes at the airport, allegedly looked through the mail while on the job Feb. 25 and 26 and stole eight checks totaling more than $2.3 million. Two were corporate checks, one for $2 million and another for about $242,000, news reports said.

I don’t know if the duo also happened upon the card addressed to me in Virginia on Feb. 26.

Most postal workers are dedicated and honest, although there are bad apples. One postal worker in Lubbock charged with mail theft admitted he stole mail every day he was on the job for four months last year.

Many, if not most, mail theft cases in the news are outside jobs. In Mount Jackson, Va., a man was charged Oct. 5 with 28 counts of identity theft to defraud less than $1,000, 12 counts of financial fraud and other crimes.

He allegedly stole people’s mail and used their personal information to open several accounts and credit cards in their names.

That wasn’t the extent of his troubles with the law. After the local sheriff and police officers went to his home, the man was also charged with 10 counts of animal cruelty and five counts of inadequate care by owner, The Northern Virginia Daily reported.

Nearly everyone has a story to tell about mail delayed or lost. The inspection service received about 300,000 mail theft complaints in the year that ended in February – and could investigate only a fraction of those cases.

Its 1,300 inspectors and 500 uniformed police officers around the country have responsibility for investigating about 200 federal crimes besides mail theft.

They protect postal workers, intercept illegal narcotics and hazardous materials sent through the mail, and investigate cybercrimes, consumer fraud and scams against veterans and the elderly, among other things. The inspection service also investigates COVID-19 scams and makes sure pandemic relief checks reach their rightful destinations.

To keep mail safe: retrieve mail promptly; deposit mail inside the post office, in blue collection boxes before the last collection of the day or hand it to a mail carrier; and never send cash. Learn more

It’s not the Wild West, but some things don’t change. We’re all potential victims of mail theft, and postal inspectors can’t catch all the criminals.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Should Breyer retire? When the personal is political -- Oct. 14, 2021 column


For months, progressives have hounded Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire.

An online petition urges him to “put the country first” and retire now. A billboard truck has driven around the Supreme Court building, and two protesters interrupted a Smithsonian Associates’ program with Breyer Oct. 4 and unfurled a banner with the same message.

At 83, Breyer is the oldest and senior liberal justice, having served since 1994. The two other liberals, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are in their 60s. A younger liberal justice with a lifetime appointment could help shape the country’s direction for decades.

President Joe Biden’s window to nominate and the Senate to confirm a replacement could slam shut after the 2022 elections. If Democrats lose their razor-thin majority in the Senate, as seems likely, Mitch McConnell would become Senate majority leader again and have the power to bedevil Biden on nominations as he did President Barack Obama.

But justices often resist hanging up their robes and may regret doing so. Sandra Day O’Connor retired at 75 to care for her beloved husband with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, but his condition deteriorated and soon he could not recognize her.

Retiring was “the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did,” O’Connor told Evan Thomas, her biographer.

Breyer deserves the respect -- and space -- to decide when he retires.

He knows his legacy is at stake. In an interview with The New York Times, he favorably recounted something the late Justice Antonin Scalia said: “He said, `I don’t want somebody appointed who will just reverse everything I’ve done for the last 25 years.’”

No one ever knows what’s ahead, and Scalia died suddenly of natural causes at 79, on a hunting trip in Texas in February 2016.

About one hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, McConnell, then majority leader, announced the Senate should not confirm a replacement in a presidential election year.

Obama nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a respected moderate many Republicans had supported. McConnell refused to allow a vote and later said blocking the nomination was his proudest moment. Biden named Garland attorney general.

When liberals nipped at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s heels to retire at age 81, so Obama could nominate her successor, she dodged the issue by asking rhetorically in an interview with Reuters, “So tell me who the president could have nominated this spring that you would rather see on the court than me?”

Her death at 87 ended her tenure just two months before the 2020 presidential election. Biden’s predecessor and McConnell rushed confirmation of conservative Amy Coney Barrett, 48, through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Today’s conservative court -- six justices appointed by Republican presidents and three by Democrats – is teeing up cases that could undo years of settled law on abortion rights and other hot topics. Breyer, a Clinton appointee, wants to participate in these cases. He has work to do.

Justices often insist that the court’s judicial decisions are not political. Breyer makes that argument in his new book, “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.”

And yet the justices are well aware of the political ramifications of their personal decision to stay or go.

Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist was once asked if it is “inappropriate for a justice to take into account the party or politics of the sitting president when deciding whether to step down from the court.”

The question came from Walter Dellinger, Duke University law professor, who wrote about it later in a 2017 article for Slate.

 “No, it’s not inappropriate,” Rehnquist replied. “Deciding when to step down from the court is not a judicial act.”

Asked recently about Rehnquist’s comment, Breyer said, “That’s true.”

Meanwhile, the political clock ticks louder. It’s still possible for Breyer to retire after this term and for Biden and Senate Democrats to install a liberal successor, likely a black woman, before the midterm elections.

But Breyer’s indecision has made the task more difficult, and he has ensured the highest court will be a key political issue in next year’s Senate races.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Columbus Day a relic of our political past -- Oct. 7, 2021 column


If you have Monday off from work, thank 19th century American politics.

The Columbus Day holiday has its roots in the presidential campaign of 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison was running for re-election.

 To win the votes of the many new Catholic and Italian immigrants who were being discriminated against, he proposed a holiday honoring Christopher Columbus, an Italian Catholic.

 Harrison then signed a proclamation, calling the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World on Oct. 12 a day to “let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the four completed centuries of American life.”

 Harrison also praised Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”

 Unfortunately for Harrison, Grover Cleveland won the 1892 presidential contest.

 But the Columbus Day holiday caught on. The Knights of Columbus and other fraternal groups pushed states to recognize the holiday, and President Franklin Roosevelt made Oct. 12 a national holiday in 1934.

 It became a federal holiday in 1968, meaning all federal offices are closed, and moved to the second Monday in October in 1971.

 Columbus was looking for a trade route to Asia from Europe when his fleet of ships reached the Caribbean. Thinking he had reached the East Indies, he called the natives Indians, but he had landed in the Bahamas and never set foot on what would become the United States.

 He didn’t “discover” America because the land was already inhabited by native peoples with a vibrant culture and history. The Europeans brought disease, genocide, rape, slavery, forced conversion to Catholicism and exploitation to the New World.

 Since the 1970s, emotions have run strong on both sides of the Columbus controversy. Critics argue a holiday honoring Columbus is inappropriate at best, and many localities have abolished Columbus Day or renamed it.

 Supporters of Columbus and his holiday argue the changes denigrate the role of Italian Americans and all immigrants in creating American society.

 As Confederate monuments forced us to confront hard truths about historical figures, so too Columbus Day demands we reassess another flawed hero. Statues of Columbus were also toppled in several cities last year.

 The federal government still celebrates Columbus every October, but about half the states, the District of Columbia and scores of cities skip the holiday entirely or call it something else, such as Indigenous People’s Day. Where cities and states put the apostrophe in “Peoples” varies.

 Columbus, Ohio, the largest city named for Columbus, called off its Columbus Day holiday and festivities in 2018 and now closes on Veterans Day instead.

 Charlottesville, Falls Church, Richmond and Alexandria recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Virginia, with 11 Native American tribes, still officially calls the second Monday in October the Columbus and Victory in Yorktown Day, a state holiday.


Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam declared the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Virginia, “a day to honor the rich culture and recognize the contributions of Indigenous people and Native Americans across the Commonwealth.” He recognized Oct.11, 2021, the same way.

 Hawaii has Discoverers’ Day, honoring Polynesian explorers, and Colorado last year replaced Columbus Day with a new holiday on the first Monday in October, Cabrini Day.

 It honors Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen who founded more than 60 schools, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions first in Denver and then throughout the United States and South and Central America. She was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII in 1946.

 Columbus was no saint, and he’s the only individual besides George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. we honor with a federal holiday. The third Monday in February is still officially Washington’s Birthday, not Presidents’ Day.

 Today we understand indigenous people suffered greatly at the hands of Columbus and throughout the forming of the United States. They were lied to, persecuted and removed from their lands.

 For years, some in Congress have sought to repeal Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Benjamin Harrison’s political ploy did not work for him, and it doesn’t reflect who we are today. It’s time to move on.  

 ©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.