May 4, 2021

COVID-19 cases and deaths are declining in the U.S. and Europe, and much of the U.S. and Europe are starting to relax safety restrictions and shift back toward pre-pandemic life. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut announced Monday they plan to fully reopen May 19. Los Angeles County reported a second day of zero COVID-19 deaths on Monday.

But Michigan is battling its way out of its recent surge, fueled by the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant first found in Britain — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has tied lower restrictions to higher vaccination rates. And the coronavirus is raging out of control in parts of South America and India. Oregon, like India, managed to avoid big outbreaks in the first waves of the pandemic, and Gov. Kate Brown (D) moved last week to make sure Oregon's new outbreak doesn't blow up.

Brown put new restrictions on 15 counties deemed at "extreme risk" for COVID-19 spread, and more counties are expected to be added this week. The governor said the measures — no indoor service at bars and restaurants, expanded outdoor dining capacity, and limits at gyms, movie theaters, and other businesses — will last no more than three weeks, and she plans for Oregon to be fully reopened by July. Brown told CBS Evening News on Monday that Oregon is in a race between vaccinations and the B.1.1.7 variant, and right now the variant is winning.

The B.1.1.7 variant, now the dominant strain in Oregon, spreads faster and appears to strike younger, healthier people, according to anecdotal evidence from Michigan, Britain, and other areas where it is prevalent. All vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are effective against the U.K. variant.

Nearly half of Oregonians are at least partially vaccinated, and the Oregon Health Authority reported one new COVID-19 death and 540 new cases Monday, a slight drop even while hospitalizations are still rising. "Oregon has among the lowest overall case counts and deaths of all states," Becky Hultberg, CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said last week. "We can't let our guard down now."

Not all U.S. states agree with Oregon's strategy. In Florida, which is reporting an average of nearly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and has a test positivity rate of 7.9 percent — versus 6 percent in Oregon — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation Monday that will allow him to override local COVID-19 restrictions across the state. Peter Weber

2:17 p.m.

In a departure from typical, "time-honored" strategy, Republicans are seemingly gearing up for a 2022 midterm election in which the Democratic president is not framed as the main villain, according to more than 25 GOP strategists and party officials interviewed by Politico. Instead, the GOP reportedly plans to group President Biden in with "more polarizing figures" — like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.)

This shift in game plan and messaging is attributed most notably to Biden's current classification as a "less-than-ideal foil," Politico writes.

The right has long struggled to effectively demonize the president — throughout the election, attempts to "depict him as mentally unfit or corrupt" fell mostly "flat," Politico writes.

Not to mention Biden is, well...a bit boring. "There are bigger bogeymen," said Republican strategist John Thomas, "We don't need [Biden] as our No. 1 foil" in 2022. Said another strategist to Politico: "It's less about vilifying one person." Notably, the president is already absent from ads seeking to attack "vulnerable" Senate Democrats, like Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

The break in Obama and Trump era midterm strategy may also be indicative of a GOP "still preoccupied with their own intra-party skirmishes." Said Republican ad maker Fred Davis to Politico: "The main problem is it's Biden and the Democrats versus two Republican parties."

There remains plenty of time for the president's reputation (and otherwise "sticky" approval rating) to deteriorate — but still, even the inevitable attacks on Biden himself are expected to focus more "on policy than personality." For now, the Republican party's reported disorganization and reluctance to "cast" the president as the "central character" should be considered a "rare bright spot" for Democrats in an "otherwise rough midterm landscape."

Read more at Politico. Brigid Kennedy

2:14 p.m.

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar is reportedly eyeing an exit after the announcement of the company's merger with Discovery — which he reportedly only found out about recently.

Kilar has "hired a legal team to negotiate his departure" as chief executive of WarnerMedia, a job he has held for about a year, The New York Times reported on Monday.

The news came only hours after AT&T said it would spin off WarnerMedia, which owns HBO, Warner Bros., CNN, and more, and merge it with Discovery to create a new standalone company run by Discovery CEO David Zaslav. The idea was that the combined company would be better positioned to compete against the likes of Disney and Netflix, and Discovery's brands include HGTV, Food Network, and Animal Planet. The deal is expected to be finalized next year.

But Kilar, the Times reports, was "kept in the dark about the deal until recent days." Zaslav told reporters on Monday that he and AT&T CEO John Stankey had met "secretly" over the past few months.

Kilar's name was not mentioned in the AT&T press release announcing the $43 billion deal, and the Times reports that when Kilar sent a memo to employees about the "momentous news," he didn't mention anything about his future at the company.

Kilar took over as the head of WarnerMedia in May 2020 after previously serving as Hulu's CEO. HBO Max, the new WarnerMedia streaming service, launched later that month. Kilar's reported plans to exit were revealed only three days after The Wall Street Journal published a profile of him, which described how he has "led one of the most radical overhauls in the entertainment industry" and opened by saying, "Jason Kilar might have a career as a tour guide if this WarnerMedia chief executive gig doesn't work out for him." Brendan Morrow

1:22 p.m.

President Biden announced Monday that the United States will export 20 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines by the end of June. Those doses are on top of the 60 million doses of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca already earmarked for export.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has not received authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, so the U.S. wouldn't be able to distribute the doses produced in the country anyway, but the latest development is significant because the other companies' shots are in use domestically.

An anonymous Biden administration official told Bloomberg the measure is only a first step, and, as the vaccination rate plateaus in the U.S., the White House will increasingly turn its attention to helping curb the coronavirus pandemic abroad. The pivot comes as the global discrepancy in vaccinations has become more glaring — many lower-income countries are struggling to secure supplies even as the virus surges in many pockets of the world.

It's not yet clear where exactly the exported vaccines will go, or how the U.S. will decide which countries get them, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the criteria should become available soon. One thing Biden did clarify in his comments is that the U.S. won't use vaccines to secure favors from other countries. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

Opinion
12:40 p.m.

The new CDC guidance on mask usage for Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 has swiftly shifted mask mandates. My state of Minnesota lifted its mandate, though our municipal mandate is still in place. Our favored Costco, however, is outside city limits and newly mandate-free for vaccinated customers, which means I can do my next grocery trip unmasked.

My twin toddlers soon cannot. They'll turn two this summer, which means that just as my husband and I can take our masks off in most indoor spaces, they'll have to put theirs on. Teaching them to wear a mask is proving a herculean task, so much so that I wonder if it's possible. Either way, I know it's ridiculous.

Other nations realize this. We have a flight planned for later this summer, so I've been researching airline rules. American carriers and airports all require masks for children two and up, per federal mandate. Airlines from other nations take a far more reasonable approach. At Emirates and Virgin Atlantic, the minimum age is six years old. For British Airways and Air France, it's 11 (and that higher cutoff isn't only for air travel).

This isn't indicative of a lax attitude toward the pandemic: France and the U.K. have had far stricter mitigation measures than we've seen anywhere in the United States. In the most recent French lockdown, for example, no one could travel more than 6 miles from their homes, a wildly draconian rule. Yet French parents don't have to wrestle their uncomprehending toddlers into masks to travel, and American parents do.

I have two ideas for a more reasonable (and, yes, obviously self-serving) approach given what we know of young children's mental and emotional development and COVID-19 itself. The first idea, which is my preference, is that children 11 and younger, who are currently too young to be vaccinated, would simply be exempt from all mask mandates, which is exactly what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. For this demographic, pandemic risks are very low, especially with adult vaccination rates rising, and the benefits of normal life are high.

The second idea, if WHO guidance isn't acceptable, is to make kindergarten the cutoff. (The WHO actively advises against masks for kids 5 and under.) A child too young to go to school is too young to wear a mask. Their brains are just not ready yet, and this is as much biological reality as is COVID-19. Bonnie Kristian

12:40 p.m.

The Supreme Court on Monday announced it will take up its first abortion case since Justice Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation gave the court a 6-3 conservative majority. Many legal scholars and analysts believe the ruling on the challenge to a struck-down Mississippi law that seeks to ban nearly all abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy could significantly affect Roe v. Wade.

Legal historian Mary Ziegler and others argue Roe doesn't necessarily have to be overturned outright for the Supreme Court's decision to alter the landscape. Instead, tinkering with it and allowing some pre-fetal-viability bans, like the Mississippi law, will pave the way for dismissing precedent. "If not viability, what is the limit on bans?," Ziegler tweeted. "IS there a limit on bans?"

Not everyone is so sure this spells doom for Roe's central components, though. Attorney Gabriel Malor actually thinks the fact that the justices will rule only on whether "all previability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional" suggests the case might not be as crucial as it seems. Malor thinks the answer to that question is obvious (of course they aren't all unconstitutional, he writes), while a more important question presented in the challenge won't even be taken up.

Meanwhile, Drexel University law professor David Cohen writes that no one can confidently predict how the court will rule, pointing out that an 8-1 conservative court was widely expected to overturn Roe when ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, but ultimately did not. Tim O'Donnell

12:29 p.m.

Former child star Ricky Schroder, who drew criticism for confronting a Costco employee over the store's mask policy in a viral video, is both apologizing and doubling down.

The Silver Spoons actor on Instagram apologized to the Costco worker he filmed himself confronting for not allowing him into the store without wearing a mask, while at the same time suggesting that's something he "had" to do to make a point against mask mandates, per Entertainment Weekly.

"I was trying to make a point to the corporate overlords," Schroder said in a video, addressing the Costco worker. "Sorry that I had to use you to do it. If I hurt your feelings, I apologize. But I do think that independence from medical tyranny is more important than hurting people's feelings. So I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, but I want us all to be free."

The Costco employee was seen in the video explaining to Schroder that while the CDC recently issued guidance saying that those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can stop mostly wearing masks indoors, "the mandate in California has not changed" yet and he was still required to wear a mask in the store. Costco is "simply abiding by the law," the worker added. Schroder, though, angrily rejected that explanation in the video, declaring that his followers in California should "give up your membership" to Costco in protest.

The video quickly went viral and prompted criticism of Schroder over his treatment of the Costco employee, with writer Paul Rudnick tweeting, "Anyone who harasses a store or restaurant employee over a mask policy is despicable." Brendan Morrow

11:07 a.m.

The White House is abuzz, and not just with political gossip.

In a recent call with President Biden's senior adviser Cedric Richmond, former Trump adviser Jared Kushner offered not only job advice, but also his condolences regarding the White House fly problem, sources told Politico.

"Yeah man, they're like bats," Kushner said to Richmond in what Politico called a rare "point of agreement" between the two officials. "Good luck," Kushner added.

The White House's bug issue is reportedly ongoing, extending back through the Trump presidency to at least the Obama administration, per Politico. Former National Security spokesman under President Barack Obama Tommy Vietor said, "We had bug zappers going 24/7." Brigid Kennedy

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