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Both Chambers Of Congress Back For First Time During Pandemic Amid Questions On Tests




Lawmakers are directed to practice social distancing for debates and votes on the floor of the House of Representatives. AP hide caption

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On Thursday, the House and Senate will be in session at the same time, for the first time, since the pandemic began more than three months ago.

While the 100-member Senate resumed its regular floor business in May, the much larger House of Representatives has met sparingly. With more than 430 members, the lower chamber faces higher risks for an outbreak.

And like many other workplaces around the country, Congress has had to ration tests for the coronavirus. Much of the work by employees, aides and lawmakers is being done remotely. Last month, the House approved new rules allowing proxy voting and hearings by video conference.

“Rationing tests for members of Congress … to me, it’s maddening,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Like, this is no way to run a country.”

But there have been some improvements. The attending physician to Congress can now test asymptomatic members, a senior Democratic aide told NPR. Previously, only some sick members could access tests.

Meanwhile, the Capitol remains closed to the general public for tours and visits. And those still meeting there largely adhere to the attending physician’s guidance to maintain social distancing and wear masks.

“Everyone should just wear a damn mask, like you guys are, like I am right now,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Wednesday.

Members of Congress saw a spike in cases at the start of the pandemic but have largely flattened their curve, with a total of nine cases.

But Capitol workers — which include staff members, Capitol Police officers and those who maintain operations — have seen a larger influx of cases, with more than 60 by mid-June, according to a congressional aide.

“Those are the ones that we should be concerned about developing some long-term testing protocols for, because it’s not just about the members,” Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., ranking member on the House Administration Committee, told NPR recently.

Davis has been on the hunt for a new testing program for Congress. This month, he wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for the attending physician to partner with the military or a private vendor to test 2,000 people or more a week.

But so far Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said Congress shouldn’t get prioritized testing ahead of essential workers.

The chair of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., agrees with that plan — for now.

“I think until the country is in better shape, we’re not going to be in a position to test everybody who comes into the Capitol,” Lofgren said.

Experts such as Jha say national testing still hasn’t reached recommended levels. Among those showing little interest in boosting it is President Trump, who told a rally last weekend in Tulsa, Okla., that he asked for testing to be slowed.

On Tuesday, Trump told reporters he wasn’t kidding when he made the comments.

“Testing is a double-edged sword,” he said.



Eiffel Tower Reopens In Paris, After A 3-Month Shutdown




A couple hugs each other as they visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Thursday. The iconic tower is reopening after the coronavirus forced its longest closure since World War II. Thibault Camus/AP hide caption

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Thibault Camus/AP

The Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors Thursday morning, after being shut down for more than three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the Paris landmark’s longest closure since World War II.

The reopening is a dramatic sign of people finally reclaiming public spaces in France, after more than 100 days of restrictions. But the tower’s highest point is still not open – and for now, visitors will need to take the stairs.

The stairs-only rule is one of several restrictions at the site, which draws millions of tourists during a normal year. Face masks are compulsory for all visitors over the age of 11, and physical distancing markers are in place.

To keep people from crossing paths on the stairs, visitors will ascend on the Eiffel Tower’s East pillar and descent on the West pillar, the Eiffel Tower website states.

The reopening took place on a sunny and clear morning, promising wide views of the city. The tower’s return was widely celebrated, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hailing the reopening. As the first visitors prepared to make their way up, a band of drummers performed in the plaza at the tower’s base.

Elevator service inside the monument is slated to return on July 1. For those who can’t wait, a ticket to walk up to the Eiffel Tower’s second floor – the wider area that cuts off just as the tower narrows toward its spire – costs 10.40 euros (about $11.65).

Tickets are being sold online, in 30-minute increments. Shortly after noon local time Thursday, spots were still open through the afternoon, although the evening tickets had all been claimed, presumably by people eager to see how the City of Lights comes to life in the night, even during a pandemic.

A French government official declared the coronavirus to be “under control” in early June. Days later, France joined the rest of the European Union in lifting many border restrictions within the bloc – part of a plan to salvage part of the summer tourism season.

There are signs that the virus is remaining under control. France’s positive test rate for the coronavirus is 1.5%, according to the most recent data from the national public health agency. Only two of its 104 departments are considered to be in a highly vulnerable situation – and those are in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.

France has confirmed 161,348 coronavirus cases, including 29,731 deaths, according to government data.


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‘Gone With The Wind’ Returns To HBO Max With New Introduction




The New York premiere of Gone With the Wind on Dec. 19, 1939, in the Astor Theater on Broadway. AP hide caption

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Gone With The Wind has returned to the streaming service HBO Max after it was removed earlier this month because of its benign portrayal of American slavery. The film now features a new introduction by film scholar and Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart.

In the introduction, Stewart addresses the film’s problematic depiction of the Antebellum South.

“Eighty years after its initial release, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a film of undeniable cultural significance,” she says. “It is not only a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past but also an enduring work of popular culture that speaks directly to the racial inequalities that persist in media and society today.”

Stewart adds that the film depicts a “world of grace and beauty, without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.”

The streaming service also added two companion videos along with the return of the film. One video features a panel discussion on the film’s controversial legacy and another provides more information about Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 became the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of the enslaved “Mammy.”

Los Angeles school children attend a ceremony unveiling a commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp for actor Hattie McDaniel in 2006, in Beverly Hills, Calif. McDaniel, also a singer, radio and television personality, was the first African American to win an Oscar, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. DAMIAN DOVARGANES/AP hide caption

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The 1939 film has long been the subject of criticism, with some saying it portrayed the Confederacy with sentimentality and fondness. Recent protests for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd renewed these concerns. Screenwriter, producer and director John Ridley wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times earlier this month calling on HBO Max to remove Gone With the Wind from its library.

“The movie had the very best talents in Hollywood at that time working together to sentimentalize a history that never was,” Ridley wrote. “And it continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’ “

A spokesperson for the streaming service told NPR in a statement at the time of the film’s removal that the “racist depictions” in the film were “wrong then and wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”

The spokesperson added that aside from the new introduction, the movie itself would not be altered once it returned, “because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

Stewart reiterated those sentiments in her introduction, acknowledging that while watching Gone With The Wind and other classic films could be uncomfortable or painful, the films should be available in their original form to “invite viewers to reflect on their own beliefs when watching them now.”


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On The COVID-19 Campaign Trail, Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock May Be Getting A Boost




Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.), left, gets an update on coronavirus testing from councilman Martin Charlo of Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler/NPR

At a free, mass testing site on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, hundreds of people are queued up in idling cars. They’re waiting an hour or more for the irritating nose swab test for COVID-19, but most like Francine Van Maanen are just grateful to finally get one.

“We enjoyed the fact that they had this testing available to us so why not get checked,” she says, while waiting in line with her husband.

Nurses wearing face shields put the swabs in plastic tubes while busily scribbling notes on clipboards. This “mass surveillance” testing event was part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent goal to do community surveillance testing of 60,000 Montanans a month ⁠— the state has yet to come close to hitting that.

“This is big, this is overwhelming,” Bullock told tribal and county health officials working the recent Flathead event. “Now let’s start talking about when we’re going to do it again.”

Under Bullock’s watch, Montana now has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the nation, and among its lowest hospitalizations and deaths. Daily new case numbers have been going up for the last two weeks, but only by single or double digits. The pandemic ⁠— and Bullock’s handling of it as the state’s top leader ⁠— is fast becoming a central issue in his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

The race is one of a few around the country that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. It’s also expected to be one of the most expensive in the nation, and likely the most expensive in Montana’s history.

Some waited for more than an hour to get tested at a recent free coronavirus testing event on the Flathead Reservation. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler/NPR

COVID-19 campaigning

Bullock, citing advice from local public health officials, implemented a statewide stay-at-home order and closed most schools down earlier than some neighboring states on March 28. Montana also began a phased reopening earlier than most, around the middle of last month. By June 1, citing the low number of cases, Bullock lifted a 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers, saying there is ample contact tracing now.

“We may see positive cases,” he says. “But we’ll also identify those positive cases before they start spreading.”

On the Flathead, the one-time presidential candidate was in his element, wearing jeans and cowboy boots, his Ray-Bans shielding against the glare from the sun hitting the late season snow high on the Mission Mountains.

Bullock is termed out as governor after this year. After months of insisting he wouldn’t run for Senate, just before the filing deadline, he changed his mind in March. Then a few days later, the pandemic hit.

“I think there’ll be a time for the campaigning side of that,” he says. “But that hasn’t been where I’ve really been putting the time.”

But the pandemic is in the news every day, which so far hasn’t exactly hurt Bullock who until recently had been seen as the underdog.

“He’s dominating the airwaves, you can’t turn around without seeing a story about the governor,” says Chris Mehl, the non-partisan mayor of Bozeman.

Bozeman is the state’s fastest growing city. It’s swung blue lately, in part due to a wave of newcomers attracted by the area’s outdoor and recreation amenities and the increased ability to telecommute. The university town near to ski resorts and Yellowstone National Park was also Montana’s initial hotspot for cases.

“It’s in a sense become what he’s tied to,” Mehl says. “The issue for him is the competency of handling the pandemic, both on a health side but also on an economic recovery side.”

Bozeman Mayor Chris Mehl’s city lies at the heart of Montana’s fastest growing region. It was also an early hotspot for coronavirus cases in the West. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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Kirk Siegler/NPR

‘Jobs and economy’ election

Bozeman is also the hometown of Republican Steve Daines. Lately Daines has struggled to get into the local news as much as Bullock even after he helped pass a sweeping public lands conservation bill. If these were normal times, that would have been big news considering the growing influence of the outdoor recreation economy in the state.

Nevertheless, in a phone interview, the senator says he doesn’t think the public health crisis itself will be much of a factor come Fall.

“I think by the time voters start to cast their ballots, this election is going to be a jobs and economy election,” Daines says.

Daines touted his experience helping small businesses, and he predicted unemployment claims will continue to mount if the pandemic continues to hamper economic recovery.

But in Montana right now, Daines’ reelection chances may depend mostly on President Trump remaining popular here.

Daines has positioned himself as one of the president’s staunch supporters. When Trump tweeted the so-called “squad” should go back where they came from, Daines doubled down in support. He was also one of the few Republican senators to publicly praise the president when peaceful protesters were cleared out from in front of the White House so Trump could pose holding a bible.

“Montanans are going to vote for President Trump, he’s going to win Montana,” Daines says. “They’re going to be glad that he’s coming here.”

Trump also came to Montana four times in 2018, failing to unseat the state’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester. While no dates have been set, his return on behalf of Daines is widely expected and that’s prompting the same public health concerns as at recent rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix.

“That bridge will be crossed when there is a decision made to have a rally,” Daines says.

Montana ticket splitting

Montana is famously all over the map politically. When Daines was elected in 2014, he took over a Senate seat that Democrats had held for 100 years. In 2016, when Trump won Montana by nearly 20 points, Steve Bullock was re-elected as governor.

Just like during his long-shot presidential bid, Bullock is touting his bipartisan record from COVID-19, to Medicaid expansion and showing support for the Keystone pipeline which crosses the state.

Look, I stood up to President Obama multiple times,” Bullock says. “I’ll work with whoever it is when it’s in the best interest of Montana.

One place Bullock has taken some heat for his handling of the pandemic is in national park gateway towns like West Yellowstone. Montana’s entrance gates opened three weeks after Wyoming’s, as per Bullock’s order.

“I would have loved to have seen us open earlier,” says Travis Watt, general manager for a hotel and a couple other businesses in the tourist-dependent town. “I’m glad he didn’t wait till longer, I know there was a lot of pressure to push until later.”

Watt didn’t vote for Bullock for Governor but he says he likes how he’s managed the pandemic so far.

“It’s a unique situation and you look at some of the things going around in the country and I think Montana sits pretty good,” Watt says.

While Sen. Daines can probably win Montana with a big turnout from Trump’s base and rural voters, Bullock will need people like Watt to consider crossing over, just as he needs coronavirus cases to stay low and the economy to rebound.


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How Racial Unrest Is Motivating White Voters In One Key Michigan County




Kim Gates says she never considered herself political until Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Asma Khalid/NPR

On a recent morning, Kim Gates helped hand out free boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables in an underserved area of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Lately, the retired school teacher from the nearby tiny town of Caledonia has been trying to volunteer with minority communities and read more about racism.

The 63-year-old white woman had always voted for the candidate she thought was best for the job — like, for instance, Michigan’s recent Republican governor, Rick Snyder. She says she never considered herself political until Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

“The night he got elected I got online and started looking for issues I was going to support,” Gates said. “And I chose to support areas against racism and with immigration.”

Gates says she was drawn to those topics, in part, because she was living in a “very very white, very homogeneous community.” The election of Trump was her initial catalyst but, like many white voters, the death of George Floyd and the outcry that followed have made her more conscious of race and racial injustice.

Polling shows Gates is not alone. A recent Monmouth survey found 76% of Americans say racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the country. That’s up from 51% five years ago. More than half of Americans also now support the Black Lives Matter movement, another poll found. In particular, white suburban voters are having a reckoning with race — showing up to protests in small towns and calling for police reform in communities that had never witnessed a Black Lives Matter rally before.

As NPR has previously reported, polls show an increasing number of white liberals began adopting more progressive positions on a range of cultural issues around 2012. These days, white Democrats — and, in particular, white liberals — are more likely than in decades past to support more liberal immigration policies, embrace racial diversity, and uphold affirmative action.

“This country needs a man like Gerald Ford”

Former President Gerald Ford’s boyhood home is seen in Grand Rapids, Mich. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Asma Khalid/NPR

For decades, Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, has been reliably Republican. With the exception of Barack Obama’s narrow victory in 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the county since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

But in 2016, Trump narrowly won it, by 3 percentage points — far narrower than Mitt Romney’s victory there four years prior.

And in 2018, Democrats further chipped away at that historical legacy. The state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, won the county by 4 percentage points. And then last year, conservative Rep. Justin Amash, who represents part of the county in Congress, left the Republican Party to become an independent.

Dutch Christian immigrants shaped the culture of the region. But these days, the suburbs are growing quickly and diversifying. The city of Kentwood, southeast of Grand Rapids, is known as the most diverse school district in Michigan.

The county prides itself on its unique vein of moderate Midwestern politics. Both Republicans and Democrats like to point out that Gerald Ford, the president who led the country in the wake of the Watergate scandal, hailed from Grand Rapids.

“This country needs a man like Gerald Ford,” said Tim England, who now lives in Ford’s boyhood home. “His philosophy was that he wanted to heal this country.”

England grew up as a Republican, but he says there’s no way he would vote for Trump.

“It’s a disgrace what he’s done to our democracy,” he said.

England wants a president who will be a steady hand and shepherd the country out of chaos, much like Ford after Richard Nixon. And this fall he intends to vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Dave Levitt said he’s now a “fallen conservative, a former conservative.”

Levitt voted for Romney in 2012, but then chose Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. He works in real estate and says for years he chose Republican presidents because of economic policy. He largely ignored the social issues, but he says he can’t anymore.

“I can’t see good people on both sides in Charlottesville, I’m sorry, I can’t,” Levitt said, referencing Trump’s comments on the 2017 incident. “If you’re marching down the street with a tiki torch saying, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ I’m not going to support that.”

And so come this fall, he too intends to vote for Biden, even though he feels like a man without a home in either political party.

“I think I didn’t understand white privilege”

Murals in Grand Rapids, Mich. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Asma Khalid/NPR

Kent County is the kind of place Biden may need if he intends to win back Michigan for Democrats — full of suburbanites and young, college-educated transplants who lean toward his party.

“When I went to college here in 2000, all of my friends left. It was pretty much just me and my husband here,” said Rachel Westerhof, a local Democratic organizer. “And now a number of those people have come back.”

But it’s not just young people who’ve moved into the county, which has been growing at a faster rate than the state.

Westerhof’s own parents moved to the region from Iowa two years ago. Her mother, Mary Meuzelaar, is a former Republican who began voting for Democrats in 2008 with Obama, and now considers herself a “fiery Democrat.” She says her change came down to values around poverty, equality and justice.

But more recently, that’s also incorporated race.

“I think I didn’t understand white privilege. I just didn’t understand it, because it wasn’t in the way I was brought up,” Meuzelaar said. She says she started to understand this privilege over the last eight years, and then Floyd was killed.

“Oh my goodness, I was just devastated, and suddenly it just hit home in a way that I had never felt,” she said. “I’m so embarrassed ’cause I didn’t see it before. I want so badly to make up for the things we’ve done for the last 150 years and I feel helpless at times.”

But voting makes her feel slightly less helpless. And the way the president has handled this situation, she says, makes it easy to vote against him.

At a Juneteenth celebration Friday evening, white residents lined the street demanding change, asking passing cars to honk in support. A young white man in an Eddie Bauer backpack held up a sign that read “Black Lives Matter! Period!” Another man held a sign with the words “Abolish White Supremacy.”

Some people, like Susie Hall, a 62-year-old teacher, had never attended a Juneteenth celebration before. But the racial unrest in the country prompted her to come out with her daughter.

Susie Hall, right, and her daughter Rebekah are seen at a Juneteenth celebration. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Asma Khalid/NPR

“The last couple of years I realize I taught my kids to be colorblind,” she said. “But I’m realizing, I guess, and in the process of educating myself more, that race is important, especially as our country is not equal to all races.”

But for Hall, like many Democrats, racial injustice and the need to come out and condemn it has also become a rallying cry against the president.

“We’ve come out for other things, like we’ve marched for science, we’ve marched for women and stuff like that,” said Ian O’Hara, 33, who had never previously attended a Juneteenth event or BLM protest.

The protests around racial injustice are for some white Democrats the latest outrage in a long litany of complaints about the president’s conduct in office.

“This election is really about President Trump”

But despite the passion in the streets, the assumption that the current racial unrest might actually sway Trump voters away from him seems unlikely.

Jeff Christians considers himself a moderate pro-business Republican. The small business owner is not a big fan of the president’s character.

“He’s very self-centered and I think self-serving,” he said. He feels mixed about the president’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, but still he intends to vote for him for reelection.

“I would vote for the Trump platform again because of the Republican pro-business approach,” Christians said. “The economic factors are very significant for where we are right now.”

Christians may not like the president’s behavior, but he has no intention of converting.

And Democrats around Kent County are realizing that. They say the key to victory isn’t about trying to persuade Trump voters, it’s about trying to make sure Democrats who are riled up now actually stay fed up — and then show up on Election Day.

“This election is really about President Trump,” said Gary Stark, the Kent County Democratic chairman. “Almost all Democrats I talk to say ‘vote blue, no matter who’ — you don’t have to be enthusiastic … it’s pragmatic.”


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