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

2:27 p.m.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is considered one of the strongest supporters of the United States' relationship with Israel among congressional Democrats. On Saturday, though, he said he is "deeply troubled" by reports of Israeli airstrikes killing Palestinian civilians and targeting a building that houses international media offices (Israel said Hamas was also using the building for military purposes).

Israel, he said, "has every right to defend itself" against rocket attacks from Hamas, but "given the complexity of Gaza's densely populated civilian areas, and Hamas' shameful record of exploiting that reality by hiding military assets behind the innocent, Israeli authorities must continue taking the conscientious practice of giving advance warning of its attacks to reduce the risk of harm to the innocent." He added that "there must be a full accounting of actions that have led to civilian deaths and destruction of media outlets."

Menendez's comments certainly don't reflect a full reversal from his traditional stance, but observers noted that, so far at least, it appears to be one of the most unexpected responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict from an American politician.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly told him that Israel was doing whatever it could to make sure civilians were not hit in airstrikes. The White House has mostly kept quiet about details of the phone call. Tim O'Donnell

1:20 p.m.

The Biden administration still firmly believes the United States is not headed toward a "sustained pick-up" in inflation. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is closely monitoring the situation and hasn't found any surprising data that's cause for panic. But, with prices likely to continue to rise in the near future, it might become more difficult for the White House to convince Americans that that's the case, Bloomberg reports.

"We still have a weird six months ahead," Josh Bivens, the director of research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg. "It will be a real challenge for the administration and the [Federal Reserve} to stay firm on their stance."

Indeed, there's reportedly some concern within the administration about political fallout, even if inflation is ultimately temporary, as Biden's economics team believes. One of the most consequential risks is how a potential "inflationary psychology" — in other words, anxious consumers — will affect support for Biden's major spending proposals, which could total around $4 trillion, an unnamed "ally" of the president told Bloomberg. Read more about how the Biden administration is responding to inflation fears at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

12:49 p.m.

There was already a bipartisan effort in Congress to craft legislation that would require certain companies, particularly those that operate critical infrastructure, to report cyberattacks, and the recent ransomware strike against the Colonial Pipeline has increased the urgency to get things done, Politico reports.

"You couldn't have a better reason" for adding a mandate than the attacks on Colonial and SolarWinds, which took place last year, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Politico. He's working alongside Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said requiring companies like Colonial to alert the government of an attack is just "the tip of the iceberg of what we need to do."

Private companies have bristled at the idea of voluntarily sharing their data with the government for fear of leaks, Politico notes, but as the risk of cyberattacks increases, a mandate could become harder and harder to avoid. Until something is in place, the U.S. government will remain "completely blind to what is happening," Brandon Wales, the acting director of the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told reporters earlier this week, per Politico. "That just weakens our overall cyber posture across our entire country."

Warner said the legislation would provide a "public-private forum, with appropriate immunity and confidentiality." Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

11:36 a.m.

Perseverance and Curiosity have company.

The China National Space Administration successfully landed its Zhurong rover on Mars on Saturday, state media reports, making China the third country after the United States and Soviet Union to touch down on the Red Planet (the 1971 Soviet mission failed shortly after landing). It's considered a major achievement for Beijing's space program, which is growing more and more ambitious.

Zhurong will soon be deployed from the lander for a three-month mission, joining the aforementioned operational NASA rovers. So, what will it be doing? CNN and The Associated Press report that it will be searching for signs of ancient life, but the mission appears to be a little more specific than that. The Scientific American reports that Zhurong's landing site, Utopia Planitia, is "a rather bland expanse of rock-strewn sand," a good spot for a touchdown, but "decidedly sub-par for addressing cutting-edge research questions, such as whether Mars harbors past or present life."

That said, the mission should come in handy, Agnes Cousin, a planetary scientist at the Institute for Research and in Astrophysics and Planetology in France, told The Scientific American. "For the overall geological implications for Mars, it’s very nice to have a new location to compare," she said.

Among other things, Zhurong is equipped with the first magnetometer sent to Mars, which reportedly could possibly reveal details of how Mars lost its magnetic field and, subsequently, its atmosphere and water billions of years ago. Read more at The Scientific American and The South China Morning Post. Tim O'Donnell

10:58 a.m.

An Israeli airstrike destroyed the Al Jalaa Tower, a high-rise in Gaza that housed the offices of multiple media outlets in the region, including Al Jazeera and The Associated Press, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continued Saturday. The Israeli military warned people to evacuate the building, and there do not appear to be any reports of casualties; AP has said its staffers are safe.

AP reported that there was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted, but Israel has since said it contained "military assets belonging to the intelligence offices of the Hamas terror organization."

Gary Pruitt, AP's president and CEO, said the organization is "shocked and horrified" by the strike. "We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life," he said, adding that "the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today."

Al Jazeera responded to the incident, as well, calling for international condemnation of Israel's actions, which the publication called a "blatant violation of human rights" and a "war crime," although American attorney Mark Zaid said that accusation could be complicated if it turns out Hamas was using the media as a "shield" for what would otherwise be a "legitimate target." Tim O'Donnell

8:01 a.m.

Israeli and Hamas officials signaled they may be open to a cease-fire late Friday, The New York Times reports, and Hady Amr, the United States' deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel and Palestinian affairs, is scheduled to meet with senior officials from Israel and Palestine in Jerusalem on Saturday. The talks are aimed at "achieving a sustainable calm," State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said Friday. There's both hope and skepticism that something will get done.

Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, told BBC he thinks "both sides have limited objectives and they're essentially reaching the point where it doesn't make sense ... to continue this war." But Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician, isn't so optimistic, BBC reports. She criticized President Biden's handling of the situation. "Biden waited for a whole week before he sent ... not even a third, fourth-level civil servant and you think the Israelis are going to listen?," she said, adding that "if they really mean business they can, at the highest level, come out and say 'stop the shelling, stop the killing.'"

Violence continued early Saturday when an Israeli air raid in Gaza City killed at least 10 Palestinians, reportedly mostly children, in a refugee camp. It appears to be the deadliest individual strike since the latest phase of the conflict broke out last week, The Associated Press reports. Hamas said it was firing rockets at Tel Aviv in return. More than 130 people have been killed in Gaza, as well as eight people in Israel, since the violence began. Read more at The Associated Press, The New York Times, and BBC. Tim O'Donnell

May 14, 2021

Nicki Minaj is opening up about the "devastating" loss of her father.

The rapper emotionally addressed her father's death in a letter on her website Friday three months after he was killed in a hit-and-run on Long Island, reports Entertainment Weekly. These were her first public comments on his death, according to Yahoo News.

"It has been the most devastating loss of my life," Minaj wrote. "I find myself wanting to call him all the time. More so now that he's gone. Life is funny that way."

In February, Charles Polevich was charged in connection with the hit-and-run death of Robert Maraj. Nassau County Police Detective Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said Polevich "made the conscious decision to leave" the scene "instead of dialing 911" after hitting Maraj with his car in Mineola, New York, The Associated Press reported. Minaj's mother filed a $150 million lawsuit against Polevich in March; her lawyer said at the time Polevich's "behavior was criminal, cowardly, and immoral."

In her post on Friday, Minaj wrote that she can't yet "bring myself to discuss" her father's death further, but she paid tribute to him by writing, "May his soul rest in paradise. He was very loved & will be very missed." Brendan Morrow

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