Not This Year

Memorial Day has a long history – honor the Union dead, who kept the United States united, or the Confederate dead, who nobly fought to keep Southern chivalry and honor alive, or move on and honor all the dead who fought in all the wars since, for all the reasons, even if there may have been no reason at all now and then. They gave their all, but then there’s how most Americans actually live their lives now. Memorial Day is the start of summer, just as Labor Day, the first Monday of September, is when glorious summer ends and it’s back to school or work and that’s that. This is popular culture, not celestial geometry, and this is Memorial Day weekend. This is summer now. Hit the beach. But not this year, or not exactly – with nearly one hundred thousand dead from the pandemic and the economy in ruins, this year will be different.

Consider the Associated Press’ explanation how different things are now:

Millions of Americans are getting ready to emerge from coronavirus lockdowns and venture outdoors to celebrate Memorial Day weekend at beaches, cookouts and family outings, raising concern among public health officials that large gatherings could cause outbreaks to come roaring back.

Medical experts warn that the virus won’t take a holiday for the unofficial start of summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay home, avoid crowds and connect with family and friends by phone or video chat.

That’s because the usual sort of Memorial Day could kill you, but, if so, adapt:

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said Friday that people can enjoy the outdoors if they stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Birx suggested playing tennis with marked balls, one for each player to handle, or not touching flags on the golf course.

“That is your space, and that’s the space that you need to protect and ensure that you’re social distanced for others,” Birx said at a White House briefing. She also suggested disposable utensils for picnics and potlucks.

Somehow that all seems a bit sad, as those of us who live in California know:

Californians headed into the weekend with both excitement and anxiety after restrictions eased in many areas. The nation’s most populous state has started seeing a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations after being the first to order a statewide shutdown.

David Spatafore, who owns Blue Bridge Hospitality restaurant group, was looking forward to Friday’s reopening of patio seating at the group’s pizzerias and dining rooms at its high-end steakhouse in Coronado, across the bay from San Diego.

“I think people are going to be so happy to be able to go back out and not eat out of a plastic container or cardboard box,” he said. “I know I am.”

But no one may show up. Forty million Americans have filed for whatever meager unemployment benefits are still available to them. They lost their jobs. They don’t have the money to eat out. They soon may not have the money to eat. And the rich have left town. And everyone else is still frightened. And on the other coast, the beach won’t be much fun:

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the famed 40-block boardwalk and sandy shoreline reopened, but with spacing guidelines and groups limited to 10. Group sports such as volleyball are prohibited, along with tents and alcohol.

Mayor Bobby Dyer said about 150 “beach ambassadors” in red shirts will “diplomatically” ask people to follow rules.

Expect anger. Expect fights. Expect arrests. But don’t expect clarity:

Without clear federal guidance, state and local officials have been left to figure out how to celebrate the holiday safely. Social distancing and bans on mass gatherings remain in place throughout much of the country.

Everyone is faking it. Trump doesn’t like the guidance that the experts propose. They know not to cross him, so they say nothing. State and local officials will have to make this up as they go, they’ll just have to guess and hope.

That won’t be easy. When the government keeps its own government experts from explaining anything to the public, others explain it all, as the MIT Technology Review explains here:

Kathleen M. Carley and her team at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy & Social Cybersecurity have been tracking bots and influence campaigns for a long time. Across US and foreign elections, natural disasters, and other politicized events, the level of bot involvement is normally between 10 and 20%, she says.

But in a new study, the researchers have found that bots may account for between 45 and 60% of Twitter accounts discussing covid-19. Many of those accounts were created in February and have since been spreading and amplifying misinformation, including false medical advice, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and pushes to end stay-at-home orders and reopen America.

They follow well-worn patterns of coordinated influence campaigns, and their strategy is already working: since the beginning of the crisis, the researchers have observed a greater polarization in Twitter discourse around the topic.

Most of this is the new flood of “testimonials” from “actual nurses” who have seen, over and over, that anyone who dies of anything other that a car crash or gunshot wounds is listed as having died of Covid-19 by people lying about this to take down Trump and ruin America. They’re very angry.

And they don’t exist. The twitter-handles change. The locations change. The wording is exactly the same. These come in waves of a million or two every other day or so. In 2016 it was wave after wave of tweets about how the new Pope just endorsed Donald Trump, millions and millions of tweets. And now these researchers have begun to analyze Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube to understand how this new wave of Covid-19 disinformation spreads between platforms, and it does, and it’s automated and self-replicating.

But there is other information:

The coronavirus may still be spreading at epidemic rates in 24 states, particularly in the South and Midwest, according to new research that highlights the risk of a second wave of infections in places that reopen too quickly or without sufficient precautions.

Researchers at Imperial College London created a model that incorporates cellphone data showing that people sharply reduced their movements after stay-at-home orders were broadly imposed in March. With restrictions now easing and mobility increasing with the approach of Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer, the researchers developed an estimate of viral spread as of May 17.

It is a snapshot of a transitional moment in the pandemic and captures the patchwork nature across the country of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Some states have had little viral spread or “crushed the curve” to a great degree and have some wiggle room to reopen their economies without generating a new epidemic-level surge in cases. Others are nowhere near containing the virus.

The researchers at Imperial College London are not computer generated twitter-bots and this is trouble:

The model, which has not been peer reviewed, shows that in the majority of states, a second wave looms if people abandon efforts to mitigate the viral spread.

“There’s evidence that the U.S. is not under control, as an entire country,” said Samir Bhatt, a senior lecturer in geostatistics at Imperial College.

The model shows potentially ominous scenarios if people move around as they did previously and do so without taking precautions. In California and Florida, the death rate could spike to roughly 1,000 a day by July without efforts to mitigate the spread, according to the report.

But for now, absent guidance from the nation’s experts at the top, everyone below will just have to fake it:

Political leaders have traded executive orders for appeals to individual responsibility and judgment. Even as they touted reopening water parks and beaches, some governors told their citizens not to enjoy their new freedoms too much.

In a hotspot in western Iowa, “families need to make their own decisions,” said Matthew A. Ung, chair of Woodbury County’s board of supervisors. “You don’t have to act one way or another because of what the government says,” he said. “Look out for you and your family.”

About 250 miles away in Minneapolis, municipal leaders are not counting on individual responsibility alone. The mayor, Jacob Frey, this week signed an emergency regulation requiring people older than 2 to cover their faces while at “indoor spaces of public accommodation,” including schools and government buildings.

“We are not criminalizing forgetfulness, but we will be cracking down on extreme selfishness and disregard for the health and safety of fellow Minneapolis residents,” Frey said in an interview.

And if you don’t like that, move to Iowa, but don’t ask Washington about any of this:

President Trump said Thursday the United States would not shut down in the case of a second coronavirus wave.

“People say that’s a very distinct possibility. It’s standard. And we’re going to put out the fires. We’re not going to close the country. We’re going to put out the fires,” Trump told reporters during a tour of a Ford manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., when asked if he was concerned about a second wave of COVID-19.

Trump expressed confidence in the country’s ability to contain future outbreaks, referring to them as “embers.”

“Whether it’s an ember or a flame, we’re going to put it out. But we’re not closing our country,” the president continued.

Fine, that’s clear, finally, but not really:

The decision on whether to reintroduce restrictions in the event of a second wave would ultimately fall to state governors, not the federal government. While the White House issued guidance to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 it was governors who instituted stay-at-home measures and ordered businesses to close.

Still, Trump has made clear his desire for the country to reopen in order to address the economic damage caused by COVID-19.

Health experts including Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, have warned of the likelihood of a second wave of the virus come fall or winter and cautioned it could be more difficult to contain a future wave that coincides with flu season.

Should the country remain open, no matter what? Trump says yes, loudly and empathically, Fauci says no, carefully and precisely, but the state governors have the say here, not Trump or Fauci, and the state governors all have different ideas, and as the Memorial Day weekend began, this conflict came to a head. The Washington Post covered that mess:

President Trump on Friday called on states to allow places of worship to open immediately and threatened to “override” any governors who do not comply with his demand, opening a new cultural and political fight over when to lift public health restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump did not specify what legal authority he has to back up his threat, and White House officials declined to answer questions about what actions he was prepared to take, leaving it unclear how serious the president is about following through on his declaration.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter. He was angry, or pretending to be:

Trump said he is deeming places of worship “essential services” that can operate even when other establishments are closed as a safety precaution.

“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump said during a brief appearance in the White House press room as the administration released new pandemic guidance for places of worship. “It’s not right.”

That may be all that there was to this. There’s nothing he can do here but there are those who need to hear him shout that this is NOT RIGHT! Let’s pack those churches, wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder, no masks. That’s his direct order:

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” Trump said of states that do not allow churches, synagogues and mosques to open this weekend. “America, we need more prayer, not less.”

Wasn’t this a public health issue? It was time to calm him down:

Public health officials continue to warn against mass gatherings or settings in which people will be in close quarters, and note that religious gatherings have been the source of several outbreaks. Some states put congregations in the same opening category as theaters.

Deborah Birx, a leader on the president’s coronavirus task force, added some caveats to Trump’s blanket demand for churches to open now, including that perhaps some church leaders may want to “wait another week” based on local health conditions.

“I think each one of the leaders in the faith community should be in touch with their local health department so that they can communicate to their congregants,” she said during the same White House briefing.

She’s sure these good people out there will do the right thing, but no one is sure about the Trump crew:

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on what authority the administration had to override governors and whether the Justice Department was preparing to get involved in the issue this weekend.

They weren’t ready for this, but this was inevitable:

White House officials have battled with CDC aides for weeks over the guidance. Objections came from Vice President Pence’s office, the domestic policy council and other members on the president’s coronavirus task force. In private conversations, White House officials have told religious allies that the CDC document is only a guideline, suggesting that church leaders would have the president’s blessing if they bent the rules.

But they may not want to bend the rules right now:

A University of Chicago Divinity School-AP-NORC poll completed in early May found 51 percent said in-person religious services should be allowed in some form and 9 percent said they should be allowed without any restrictions, while 42 percent said they should be allowed with restrictions on crowd size or physical distancing. Another 48 percent said they should not be allowed at all.

The same poll found 34 percent saying government orders prohibiting in-person religious services “violates freedom of religion,” while 66 percent said this did not.

So, Trump agreeing with these people that this is a big deal, when most of them think it isn’t an issue at all. They can wait, given the new rules, which, as Trump and Pence insisted, are now nonbinding:

The CDC guidance released Friday is a streamlined version of earlier draft guidelines that were the subject of internal debate at the White House last month. Although the content remains essentially the same, the introductory language is far more deferential to religious leaders than earlier drafts as well as guidance directed at other parts of society and the economy.

The release specifies that the information offered is “nonbinding public health guidance for consideration only.”

But that health guidance is onerous:

Faith communities are asked to consider temporarily limiting the sharing of prayer books, hymnals and other materials; using a stationary collection box, the mail or electronic payment instead of shared collection trays or baskets; and suspending or decreasing choir or musical ensembles and congregant singing during services or other programs.

The guidance also noted that the “act of singing may contribute to transmission of covid-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.”

During a choir practice in Washington state, one person ended up infecting 52 other people, including two who died, according to a CDC report last week about what it described as a “superspreader event.”

That’s something to consider, or not:

Some officials discussed simply releasing the revamped CDC guidelines without fanfare, but Trump decided to do an event so he could get public credit for fighting for churches, said two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy decisions.

And of course he’ll lose that fight, but this will move the courts, for daily headlines until November:

Earlier this month, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit filed by a church in Chincoteague, Va. In that suit, the church has argued that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) violated the congregation’s constitutional rights to practice their religion.

The Justice Department’s filing in that case said the Lighthouse Fellowship Church has a “strong case” that its First Amendment rights have been abrogated by an order banning gatherings of more than 10 that applies to churches but not some secular businesses, like liquor stores and professional offices.

The Justice Department had previously argued in a similar suit on behalf of a Mississippi church and on Tuesday told California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that his plan to reopen California discriminates against churches.

That’s the fall campaign. Religious freedom and personal freedom mean no one can enforce any emergency public safety rules at all, ever, period. You have your rights!

That may be a winning strategy, or not:

Some prominent evangelical leaders said they were worried the president’s pressing for openings could encourage some clergy to take unnecessary risks with their congregants’ health. Some of the megachurches led by Trump advisers remain closed through the month.

Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the 45,000-member National Association of Evangelicals, said Friday that “just because the government says it’s okay to open doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wise to reopen. The best way to show love is to make sure we don’t infect others.” His anecdotal sense is that “very few” of NAE’s members are opening, he said.

Carey said the NAE put out its own guidance to its members last week, urging them to follow guidelines of local and state authorities.

In short, don’t listen to that man with the orange hair. Just ignore him. Do the right thing.

Andrew Sullivan feels the same way:

It’s perfectly clear by now that the United States does not have a functioning president or administration. It also seems clear that this does not matter to a sizable chunk of the population. They just don’t care – even when it could lead them to lose their lives and their livelihoods. None of the events of the last year – impeachment, plague, economic collapse – have had anything but a trivial impact on public opinion.

Neither, it seems, does the plain evidence of Trump’s derangement. Yesterday, at a Ford plant in Michigan, the president reiterated that he was once named “Man of the Year” in Michigan, something that never happened and an honor that doesn’t exist. He insisted that Obama had left no pandemic preparation behind – “We took over empty cupboards. The cupboards were bare” – which is untrue. He said he owned a lot of Lincolns but then he said he didn’t. When referring to the anti-Semite and Nazi-supporter Henry Ford, he ad-libbed, “Good bloodlines, if you believe in that stuff. Good blood.”

That was odd – “Ford was widely known for his pacifism during the first years of World War I, and for promoting anti-Semitic content, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, through his newspaper The Dearborn Independent and the book The International Jew, having an alleged influence on the development of Nazism.”

Trump likes that? Sullivan sees more:

In a factory where mask-wearing is legally mandatory and where every other executive was wearing a mask – and one who spoke with a Perspex visor on as well – Trump refused to wear one in public, though he apparently put one on behind the curtain. When asked why he wasn’t wearing one, he said: “I don’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” The official taxpayer-funded White House trip was also used to give an overtly partisan campaign speech, breaking the law. Just one completely bonkers day from a president who has effectively refused to do the job.

And then there’s the pandemic:

The president was briefed on the looming viral threat, both internally and externally, multiple times in January. But he does not read his briefings – he doesn’t actually read anything – and is uniquely un-briefable in person, according to a story in the New York Times: “‘How do you know?’ is Mr. Trump’s common refrain during his 30- to 50-minute briefings two or three times a week. He counters with his own statistics on issues where he has strong views, like trade or NATO. Directly challenging him, even when his numbers are wrong, appears to erode Mr. Trump’s trust, according to former officials, and ultimately he stops listening.”

In other words, the officials who tell him things he doesn’t want to believe are soon sidelined or fired. This is the behavior of a two-year-old. In a man in his seventies, it’s a form of pathology…

Put simply, these are delusional attempts to describe his own fantasies as an objective reality – like how the Russians did not try to interfere in the 2016 election, his inauguration crowd was way bigger than Obama’s, tariffs are paid by the Chinese government, and that anyone in America could have gotten a COVID-19 test. This is a form of psychological disorder.

Sullivan goes on and on, and then there’s this:

There is no rational or coherent explanation for any of this. There is no strategy, or political genius. There is just a delusional pathology in which he says whatever comes into his head at any moment, determined entirely by his mood, which is usually bad. His attention span is so tiny and his memory so occluded that he can say two contradictory things with equal conviction repeatedly, and have no idea there might be any inconsistency at all.

That would be things like this:

He believes that tests are bad, because they make America look bad, and then boasts of his record in testing (which is, of course, not good). When a White House staffer, Vice-President Pence’s spokesperson, Katie Miller, tested positive for COVID-19, this is what Trump said: “She tested very good for a long period of time. And then all of a sudden today she tested positive. So, she tested positive out of the blue. This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily, right, the tests are perfect but something can happen between a test where it’s good and then something happens and then all of a sudden, she was tested very recently and tested negative.”

With anyone else, we would assume he was drunk when he said that. His sobriety is indistinguishable from alcoholic stupor.

And that shapes this Memorial Day weekend:

None of this seems to matter to the supporters of the president. For them, the pathology seems to be the point. It is precisely Trump’s refusal to acknowledge reality that they thrill to – because it offends and upsets the people they hate (i.e., city dwellers, the educated, and the media). The more that Trump brazenly lies, the more Republicans support him. The more incoherent he is, the more insistent they are. Bit by bit, they have been co-opted by Trump into a series of cascading and contradicting lies, and they are not going to give up now – even when they are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital.

No one on either side is going to give up now. There are too many dead. And it’s Memorial Day and the oddest of summers begins. How many of us will live through it?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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