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3 0 06 Jul 2020

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Broadaway actor Nick Cordero dies after battle with coronavirus

4 0 06 Jul 2020

Broadway actor Nick Cordero died Sunday morning after contracting the coronavirus and spending weeks in intensive care, his wife said.

“I am in disbelief and hurting everywhere,” his wife, Amanda Kloots, posted on Instagram. “My heart is broken as I cannot imagine our lives without him.”

Cordero, 41, went to an emergency room with symptoms of the virus on March 30 and was placed on a ventilator two days later.

He had no known pre-existing conditions, Kloots has said, but he developed an infection that caused two mini-strokes and septic shock. Doctors at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles also placed Cordero, a Tony-nominated actor, in a medically induced coma and amputated his right leg.

Kloots told CBS News last week that Cordero would likely need a double lung transplant to “live the kind of life that I know my husband would want to live.”

In a note Sunday on Instagram, Kloots said she held Cordero’s hand and sang his favorite song, “Live Your Life.”

“As I sang the last line to him, ‘they’ll give you hell but don’t you light them kill your light not without a fight. Live your life,’ I smiled because he definitely put up a fight,” she said. “I will love you forever and always my sweet man.”

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for updates.

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Aliens are out there. But a new study suggests theyre more rare than we think.

5 0 05 Jul 2020

According to a new analysis from scientists at the University of Nottingham in England we don’t have a lot of alien company.

On June 15, two researchers published a paper in the Astrophysical Journal arguing that the Milky Way — which sports an estimated several hundred billion stars — could host as few as 36 alien societies. That’s a surprisingly tiny number, although the authors also make a second, more generous analysis in which they say that the count might be as many as a thousand.

The implication is that our nearest cosmic chums are at least several thousand light-years away.

Either way, their conclusion is that, like stick-shift cars, extraterrestrial civilizations are few and far between. The implication is that our nearest cosmic chums are at least several thousand light-years away.

You may wonder why this story has raised eyebrows. Well, it would make Homo sapiens extraordinarily special, despite the fact that the galaxy is stuffed with planets. It discomfits scientists (including me) because, historically, every time we’ve thought we occupy a privileged position in the universe, we were wrong. Remember that six centuries ago, learned folk would have assured you that Earth was the center of the cosmos.

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How did the British experts arrive at such a stunningly low estimate? After all, there have been enough previous studies on this topic to fill a small horde of hard drives. Astronomer Carl Sagan figured that the Milky Way houses a million societies. A more conservative claim is that the number is closer to 10,000. So why do these Brits disagree?

The scientists arrived at their low-ball tally by using a variant of the Drake equation — everyone’s favorite method to gauge alien head counts. This famous formula, which was introduced by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, is a string of seven parameters that, when multiplied together, estimate the number of technologically adept societies in the galaxy. The parameters include the abundance of Earth-like planets, the fraction that spawn life, etc.

However, there’s one term in this equation that generates a lot of debate because it’s exclusively sociological. It’s the length of time that a technological civilization maintains its mojo and beams radio or light waves into space. That’s important because if an alien culture goes silent, we may never find it.

In estimating the lifetime of a technological species, the paper’s authors make a big assumption. They note that humans have been beaming signals into the ether for about a century. That’s fair enough. But then they invoke something they’ve coined the Astrobiological Copernican Principle (what others modestly call the principle of mediocrity) and say that the universe is engaged in a massive “Simon Says” game. Whatever we on Earth have done, the rest of the universe has imitated perfectly.

So because we’ve had radio for about a hundred years, the Nottingham duo assume that all technological cultures will use this technology for a century. But then they’ll stop, and radio will go the way of the buggy whip. Radar, broadcast television, Wi-Fi — all these uses for radio will disappear, and the aliens will move on to some other, unspecified technology.

You might not have any problem with that assumption. After all, we don’t know how long radio technology will last here on Earth, so it’s tempting to take our own experience — which extends for just a century — and apply it to everyone. But that’s dicey. Would you say that, because we’ve had airplanes for a hundred years, the aliens will have airplanes for a century, and not longer?

Radio is a very useful technology, based on some fundamental physics. It might be around for as long as the wheel. So it would certainly be reasonable to guess that the technological lifetime of societies is 10,000 years, not 100. Choosing the larger number increases the tally of inhabited worlds by 100 times.

Earth-like planets can spontaneously generate living organisms, and some worlds will eventually spawn an intelligent species. But surely not all such worlds will do so.

In other words, this arbitrary assumption — that the use of radio is short-lived — is largely responsible for the authors’ unusually low estimate for the number of alien societies.

But wait, there’s more.

A second premise in the Nottingham paper is equally astonishing: Namely, that every Earth-size planet with a temperate climate will produce life, and after about 4 or 5 billion years, intelligent life will appear.

Now, of course, most scientists agree with the obvious: that Earth-like planets can spontaneously generate living organisms, and some worlds will eventually spawn an intelligent species. But surely not all such worlds will do so. That’s like saying that every kid who takes piano lessons will inevitably win the Van Cliburn prize.

The Nottingham paper has drawn a lot of attention because it claims that the number of inhabited worlds is likely paltry. But, in fact, by making your own assumptions you can derive just about any estimate for the number of intelligent cosmic species. For myself, I figure that an absolute minimum would be 70, the number that managed to bag speaking roles in “Star Trek.” Even that total would beat the lower limit published in this paper.

FDA chief responds to Trumps inaccurate coronavirus claims: Wont get into whos right and wrong

5 0 05 Jul 2020

Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, declined on Sunday to defend or criticize President Donald Trump’s inaccurate claim that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases “are totally harmless.”

Speaking with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he was “not going to get into who’s right and who is wrong” when pressed repeatedly about Trump’s Saturday comments. But he called the virus and recent surge in cases “a serious problem that we have.”

“We must do something to stem the tide,” he said, “and we have this in our power to do it by following the guidance from the White House task force and the CDC.”

“People need to take it seriously,” he added.

Hahn was pressed on Trump’s remarks during an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” as well. He said the White House task force is “certainly concerned” with the rapid rise in cases across the Sun Belt. He added the situation is “a little bit different” than what the country saw in March and April because confirmed cases are increasing among younger Americans and the U.S. has new tools to handle outbreaks.

“Well, what I’d say is, you know, any case, we don’t want to have in this country,” he said. “This is a very rapidly moving epidemic, rapidly moving pandemic, and any death, any case is tragic. And we want to do everything we can to prevent that.”

During an Independence Day speech on Saturday, Trump said increased testing has shown that nearly all cases were harmless.

“Now we have tested over 40 million people,” he said. “But by so doing, we show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless. Results that no other country will show, because no other country has testing that we have — not in terms of the numbers or in terms of the quality.”

But Trump’s claims belie the fact that the death and hospitalization rates for the coronavirus total far more than 1 percent of cases. According to an NBC News tally, there have been more than130,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. out of more than 2.8 million confirmed cases — around 4 percent— compounded with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations.

With the virus surging across much of the South and West, multiple mayors on Sunday said their cities are facing dire consequences of unclear guidance from the Trump administration.

In an interview with “State of the Union,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, said Trump’s claim “makes me angry.”

“You know, I understand he has a tough job, but it is dangerous not to be sending a clear message to Americans, to folks in my town,” the Texas mayor said. “We have the July 4 weekend, and we need everybody wearing masks. And when they start hearing that kind of ambiguous message coming out of Washington, there are more and more people that won’t wear masks, that won’t social distance, that won’t do what it takes to keep a community safe. And that’s wrong, and it’s dangerous.”

“I just have to hope that people aren’t going to listen to that, and they will stay focused on what they’re hearing here more locally,” he added.

On infections in his city, Adler said, “If we don’t change the trajectory, then I am within two weeks of having our hospitals overrun. And in our ICUs, I could be 10 days away from that.”

On “This Week,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, said, “It’s clear that the growth is exponential at this point.”

“You know, we’ve been breaking record after record after record all — the last couple of weeks,” he said.

The White House has in recent days begun to shift some of its coronavirus messaging, including on the importance of mask-wearing.

Recently and repeatedly, the president has wrongly claimed that a surge in cases is the result of increased testing, even though other numbers like positivity rates tick upward, too.

During a Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally last month, Trump said he told his administration to “slow down” coronavirus testing. Days later, he said it wasn’t a joke. Days after that, he said he was being sarcastic.

Arrests as revelers defy distancing rules after pubs reopen in England

8 0 05 Jul 2020

LONDON — Lockdown restrictions were eased, the pubs opened and crowds flocked onto the streets of English cities Saturday, many ignoring social distancing rules and prompting complaints from the police. A number of arrests were made.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, warned that it “crystal clear” that drunk people cannot social distance.

Apter, who was on patrol in Southampton, a city on England’s south coast, wrote on Twitter that officers dealt with, “anti-social behavior, naked men, possession of class ‘A’ drugs, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, more angry drunks.”

Elsewhere, in Brentwood, a small town east of London, moments after he urged people to “enjoy yourself” but to “behave,” Special Inspector Steve Weaver tweeted that four people had been arrested.

“That didn’t last long,” he wrote.

Dubbed “Super Saturday” and British “Independence Day” by some of the U.K’s tabloid press, some bars were forced to close early after opening for the first time in three months after coronavirus lockdown.

London’s Metropolitan Police said the majority of the public complied with social distancing guidelines, but some areas of the English capital were “notably busy.”

Images and videos taken in central London’s Soho nightlife district showed packed streets on the with very few people wearing masks.

Mark Welford, 61, who runs Bloomsbury Flowers in nearby Covent Garden, walked over to Soho earlier in the afternoon on Saturday to see what had gone “from zero to essentially normal activity” overnight.

Welford was initially happy to see the pubs back in action, he told NBC News in a phone interview. “But there was clearly no social distancing.”

After seeing videos from later that evening, he was surprised to see people acting like, “it was a normal Saturday night, pre-COVID.”

Some did not feel comfortable with the unraveling scene and decided to leave.

“I had my mask on and went home, I did not feel comfortable being there. It felt like all the hard work of lockdown was thrown in the bin,” said Stephen Brian Lowe over a private message on Twitter.

Low, a 20 year-old estate agent from Kingston-upon-Thames, filmed the scene of “absolute madness” in London late Saturday evening before heading home.

The large crowds raised concerns that the deadliest outbreak in Europe may spike again.

In the southern counties of Devon and Cornwall, Police said they had received more than 1,000 calls on Saturday night, mostly linked to drinking-related disorder.

In the eastern county of Nottinghamshire, four people were arrested and several pubs decided to close after alcohol related anti-social behavior.

Pubs and restaurants worked hard to get ready for the moment, spacing tables, putting some staff behind plastic counters and registering customers upon arrival.

Even so, some pubs decided not to reopen at all on Saturday night due to continued fears of a coronavirus outbreak. Leicester, a city in the middle of England, has even had its lockdown restrictions reimposed after a local flare-up earlier this week.

Owner Are Kjetil Kolltveit places markers for social distancing on the front of the bar at the Chandos Arms pub in London last week.Frank Augstein / AP

While England embarked on its biggest lockdown-easing yet — hair salons, restaurants and museums also reopened — many think it came too soon given still-high levels of coronavirus infection.

On Friday, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the pandemic “is a long way from gone” in the U.K., which has one of the highest death rates from the pandemic in the world.

More than 44,000 people have died from the virus as of Sunday, according to British health officials.

Elsewhere in Europe, South Korea and in the U.S., the reopening of bars and restaurants is blamed for a spike in infections from patrons losing their inhibitions and abandoning social distancing among strangers.

Cases continue to grow around the world, as more than 11.2 million people globally have been infected as of Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University. With shortages of testing materials, the real number of cases is unknown.

Warning signs flash for Trump in Wisconsin as pandemic response fuels disapproval

8 0 05 Jul 2020

Dennis Boyer, a former lawyer who retired years ago to his farm in southwestern Wisconsin, says there’s no question whom he and many people he’s talking to are voting for in November: It’s Joe Biden.

Boyer, a self-described independent voter who said he didn’t vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016, said the coronavirus pandemic — despite not being as virulent in the state as in many others — has “really exposed problems that pretty much connect to everything,” to the point that “voters of all stripes here really have a reason to oppose Donald Trump.”

“It’s a convergence of all the big issues of our time: health care, race, inequality. Even basic decency and human dignity. I think it’s really activating a lot of people here and certainly activating a lot of people who weren’t terribly active here in 2016,” said Boyer, who does remote part-time work with a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes civic engagement through conversation.

“Almost any way you cut it, it’s hard to defend the president,” he said.

Although the general election is still months away, interviews with a number of Wisconsin voters, current and former lawmakers, party officials, political strategists, pollsters, politics watchers and union officials paint a picture of a critical battleground slipping from the president’s grasp. Despite middle-of-the-pack COVID-19 infection, death rate and unemployment numbers, the sources said there are warning signs for Trump’s re-election campaign in nearly all corners of the state, which he turned red for the first time since 1984.

And while enthusiasm for Biden isn’t exactly robust, his campaign’s increased investment in and attention to Wisconsin — as well as a litany of unforced errors by Trump and the subsequent lagging poll numbers his campaign is seeing — are enough to concern even the state’s most prominent Republican.

“It’s tough for him any time, and every time, really, he’s not talking about issues related to the economy or to safety or to public health,” former Gov. Scott Walker said in an interview when asked whether Trump’s handling of the pandemic and recent remarks like his stated desire to “slow down” testing for the virus were jeopardizing his chances of winning again in Wisconsin.

“This is going to be a referendum on the president, and it’s going to be a referendum based on the three things that people are worried about right now: their health, the health of the economy and how safe things are in the state,” Walker said. “They’ve got to really continue addressing those three issues.”

Smaller COVID-19 numbers don’t mean smaller challenges

Wisconsin hasn’t been as affected by the outbreak as other states — its COVID-19 case total, death count, per capita infection rate and per capita death rate, as well as its percentage of the state’s workforce who have filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits since March 14, are all better than those of at least half the states, although Wisconsin has recorded a modest rise in COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks.

But its residents are still very much feeling the pain of the pandemic, and recent polling appears to indicate that many feel Trump is to blame.

Biden led Trump among registered Wisconsin voters by 49 percent to 41 percent, according to a Marquette Law School Poll — the gold standard of polling in the state — released last week. (The latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polling also indicated an upward battle for Trump, showing that he would lose Wisconsin to Biden in a head-to-head matchup, 48.5 percent to 42 percent.)

The Marquette poll, however, also showed that Trump’s overall job approval declined from the previous month’s poll, to 45 percent (with 51 percent saying they disapprove), while approval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic fell to 44 percent (with 52 percent saying they disapprove).

Critically, the poll also found that support for Trump fell among Republicans, while support for Biden rose among independent voters.

“Certainly, the consensus of public opinion in Wisconsin is that the president has done more to hurt himself than he has to help himself,” said the poll’s director, Charles Franklin, a political science professor at Marquette University.

Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin who opposes Trump, said, “Wisconsin voters are paying attention to his lack of empathy and his failure to responsibly deal with the crisis.

“Independents are walking away from Trump. That’s a big deal,” added Sykes, an MSNBC contributor who founded the conservative news site The Bulwark.

A ‘solid road map to victory’ for Biden

In many respects, repeating Trump’s surprise, narrow 2016 victory in Wisconsin — he won by just under 23,000 votes — was always going to be an onerous task. And races that have occurred in the state since then suggest that even before the pandemic, Trump was facing a Democratic base far more motivated than it was in 2016.

In 2018, the nationwide “blue wave” of Democratic victories carried particular weight in Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers defeated Walker (who had, since 2011, won two general elections and a recall election) and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin comfortably won re-election over Leah Vukmir, whom Trump endorsed.

Even more troubling for Republicans were the results from the high-stakes state Supreme Court election in April. Liberal judge Jill Karofsky defeated conservative Justice Daniel Kelly, who was also backed by Trump, in an election that took place despite the pandemic, with voters donning masks and gloves and braving long lines to cast ballots.

“When you look at whether real, strong Democratic enthusiasm exists here, well, you saw that in the 2018 election and in the spring Supreme Court election,” Sykes said. “That is what anti-Trump sentiment looks like.

“And obviously, it’s compounded by the broad uncertainty created by his pandemic response. All of that is what’s driving the dynamic in the state right now,” he said.

However, it was Baldwin’s 2018 win — she took home the highest percentage of any candidate for governor or senator in the state in 12 years — that could present the best blueprint for a Biden win, strategists and Democratic lawmakers said.

Baldwin, one of the most liberal members of Congress, carried 17 counties that Trump had carried two years earlier — including rural, working-class areas along the border with Minnesota, working-class counties around Green Bay and some suburban counties south of Milwaukee and around Madison. Notably, she won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Waukesha County, the Republican stronghold that comprises the western suburbs of Milwaukee, and 42 percent of the vote in Ozaukee County, north of Milwaukee — levels no Democratic presidential nominee has reached in more than 20 years.

So Democrats in the state took it as a promising sign last week when Biden announced a Wisconsin team led by two veterans of Baldwin’s 2018 campaign.

“This is a huge improvement from four years ago as it pertains to the level of seriousness the party is showing in carrying Wisconsin,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, whose western Wisconsin district comprises several counties that Trump flipped red in 2016.

State Rep. Robyn Vining, a Democrat who flipped a conservative state Assembly district that includes part of Waukesha County in 2018, said: “The Baldwin hires were incredibly smart. They’ll help Joe Biden follow a solid road map to victory in this state.”

Asked about its other investments in Wisconsin, the Biden campaign pointed to three virtual events geared specifically to the state featuring Joe or Jill Biden since May 20, as well as eight more since May 8 that featured campaign surrogates. The campaign declined to say how many voters it had reached virtually since the campaign went fully digital on March 14, but it did say that at a recent “virtual weekend of action” hosted by the state Democratic Party, “thousands” of volunteers made “hundreds of thousands of phone calls.”

Democrats in the state also said the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Milwaukee next month as a mostly virtual, scaled-down event because of the pandemic, could be a valuable tool to help mobilize voters and volunteers.

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Trump Victory, the joint operation between the Trump re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee, said that during the time the campaign was digital-only, it made 4.2 million online voter contacts in Wisconsin and held 180 virtual training sessions with more than 600 volunteers. The campaign said it resumed in-person voter contacts June 8.

In addition, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both visited the state last week — the president, as part of an official administration trip, toured a shipyard outside Green Bay, while the vice president, as part of a campaign visit, trekked through the Milwaukee suburbs. Republicans said the trips proved Trump will prioritize the state, while Democrats said the travel proved the campaign is feeling vulnerable.

“I think once people in Wisconsin figure out the real Joe Biden and once we refresh voters’ memories here of all the things Trump has done and can do again for the economy that Wisconsinites will go for Trump,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, who represents a solidly Republican district between Milwaukee and Madison that Trump easily carried in 2016. “He can turn it around.”

Republicans and Democrats also said that whether Biden’s virtual events are breaking through remains an open, and significant, question. But at the moment, it’s a question that may not matter much, with public opinion in the state tilted firmly against Trump.

“People’s minds here are more or less made up about Donald Trump,” said Joe Zepecki, a Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist. “But people here want to know more about Joe Biden.

“Trump has been doing nothing but hurting himself, and that just makes Biden’s job — running against an incumbent president, typically a very tall order — a little less difficult.”

Coronavirus has left Americans unhappier than ever. But heres why things are looking up.

10 0 05 Jul 2020

American happiness had been eroding for years. Then the coronavirus happened. Americans are now less happy than they’ve ever been.

It makes sense. The main pillars of happiness — social connections, physical health, income and employment — have all been threatened by the virus and by the actions taken to control its spread. Before that, erosion of trust in public institutions, weaker social connections, declining generosity and growing inequality were all playing their part. While the U.S. ranked 11th among 156 countries in the 2012 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network using data from the Gallup World Poll, it had fallen to 18th before the coronavirus pandemic.

A new survey looking at happiness post-coronavirus shows that Americans have never been in more despair.

Now, a new survey looking at happiness post-coronavirus shows that Americans have never been in more despair. According to the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 14 percent of American adults are very happy, a huge drop from the 31 percent who were just two years ago.

Amid this troubling downturn is an even more troubling downturn: Like the income gap, the happiness gap has been growing between those at the top and those at the bottom. Prior to COVID-19, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows U.S. personal income inequality to have been among the highest of all the major industrial countries and the fastest-growing. The 2016 World Happiness Report showed U.S. happiness inequality, a more encompassing measure of inequality, to also be among the highest and fast-growing among the industrial countries, and the 2020 World Happiness Report shows that greater inequality of happiness tends to reduce average national happiness.

Add the coronavirus to that, and it’s no surprise well-being inequality has worsened. U.S. data in a 29-country survey carried out in March through May of this year by Imperial College London and YouGov shows that life satisfaction inequality has grown during the pandemic. While average life satisfaction dropped by 0.6 points on the 0-to-11 scale, compared to earlier data from the Gallup World Poll, the drop was greater for those with middle and low incomes. By way of illustration, the share of respondents with life evaluations below 5 out of 10 doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent after the pandemic began.

But while the picture is bleak right now, there is reason to hope that happiness could begin to return to Americans — and ironically, some of that could be because of what has happened in response to COVID-19 and physical distancing. The pandemic has provided some new avenues for happiness that could continue after the virus is gone and prove beneficial to those up and down the socioeconomic ladder. As they say, money can’t buy happiness, which means the keys to improving emotional health and well-being aren’t solely dependent on wealth and resources.

Much of human life that a century ago used to be done outside the formal economy has since become commercialized, leading to a correlated growth in gross domestic product. But during the current timeout for the commercial economy, people are rediscovering the skills and joys of working and playing at home. This massive shift to home production, and the embrace of simple pleasures such as baking and family games, have helped to slightly redress the imbalance between rich and poor people — although, of course, people with no home and shattered job prospects struggle even to engage in these recreations.

As for social closeness, a basic source for human health and happiness, it is surviving physical distancing with the aid of communications technologies whose power and prevalence were scarcely imagined 50 years ago. The “social” aspect of social media has finally been fully realized. Their power to make adolescents anxious, to fuel envy, to misallocate fame and to distort elections has already been demonstrated. But they are now being used for better purposes, to build and maintain social closeness in the absence of physical closeness.

People have been reaching out to friends, family and beyond to make contact, provide assurance, offer help and share reminiscences and laughter. While some material resources are needed for these forms of communication, they are still much more cost-effective than airplanes and hotels and even dining out — all of which can make socializing, particularly at a distance, out of reach in normal circumstances for people with limited means.

To achieve better future results for both health and happiness, there is emerging evidence that shared social norms and the willingness to elevate the interests of others are much more effective than are stringently enforced lockdowns. The experience of the coronavirus has allowed us to focus on others’ well-being and experience community solidarity, even if on an individual level that involves discomfort and hardship.

During the current timeout for the commercial economy, people are rediscovering the skills and joys of working and playing at home.

These are important attributes to embrace because there is evidence that willingness to trust the experts and to react earlier rather than later have been the secret sauce in dealing with this fast-moving, stealthy virus. Both of these features characterize the responses and experiences of Iceland and New Zealand, countries that feature high levels of happiness and trust. These are fundamental assets to be cherished for the next crisis, whether it should be another virus, climate change or the need to redress deeply rooted inequalities.

Where trust is low, it needs to be rebuilt by avoiding the tendency to blame others and by reaching out a friendly hand to others with different appearances and circumstances, even where this takes courage. For some, the pandemic has provided such courage.

NASCAR is a rare sport that has found success navigating an era of upheaval

9 0 05 Jul 2020

In an era of unprecedented chaos for professional sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR is lapping the rest of the field.

The stock car racing association has gone from zero to 60 in the restarting of meaningful races after being locked down during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic,while the rest of the major sports are still struggling with game plans for resuming play. But the motor sport, not especially known for its diversity behind the wheel and in the stands, has also reacted to the national reckoning on racism in the wake of the George Floyd killing more decisively than its counterparts, banning the Confederate flag from all races.

As other sports remain sidelined, NASCAR races on FOX and FS1 have drawn 11.2 million new viewers during the first nine NASCAR Cup Series races after their suspension due to COVID-19 ended, according to the Nielsen Company.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished, it’s been incredibly rewarding and a special time for our sport,” Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s chief marketing and content officer, said.

“We also understand that NASCAR has a great responsibility in being one of the only sports back in action. It’s fair to say that the nature of our competition was far more conducive for a return than for stick-and-ball sports. We race in massive, open-air facilities that afford us the space to properly social distance. Our drivers are in self-contained vehicles and our pit crews are already accustomed to wearing protective gear on their faces.

“So, from an operational standpoint, we had some advantages that allowed us to return earlier than most.”

Before the sport returned May 17, NASCAR instituted a number of COVID-19 safety precautions — including temperature checks on drivers, mask requirements, reconfigured pits to allow for social distancing, a drastic cut to the number of personnel allowed onsite during race weekends, and largely closing the stands to the public. But once the cars hit 180 miles an hour, little seems to have changed.

“When you’re in the race, nothing really changes anyway,” driver Denny Hamlin told NBC News during a recent conference call with reporters.

“It’s the before and after that has been the biggest transition for us. Not being able to celebrate after race wins (with your crew) — that has been the biggest differences.”

Other sports, however, will have a much harder struggle maintaining similar protocols. It will be impossible for a linebacker to social distance, for example, while trying to tackle a running back once the 2020 NFL season kicks off this fall.

Assuming the NFL season does kick off this fall.

After locking down through the spring, abruptly interrupting the professional baseball, basketball and hockey seasons and planned football training camp time, the major sports have come up with strategies to resume in a responsible fashion. After a contentious negotiation between the league and the players association, for example, MLB announced June 24 that a truncated 60-game season would kick off later this month. The NBA rebounded from its long shutdown with a plan for a 22-team finish to the interrupted season that will determine seeding for a playoffs — with all the games being held at Walt Disney World in Orlando to quarantine the players and the staff members.

“Football teams, basketball teams, they’re very close to each other,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, the director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“The players are swearing, they’re coughing, they’re shouting, they’re in very close proximity. So the team sports are so far more at risk for spreading this around.”

Of course, NASCAR will face a much tougher test if and when racetracks reopen to some degree, as states lift bans on large gatherings. Some of the raceways on the schedule through the playoffs in September are in states where there is still a raging debate over wearing masks. Crowd control will also be difficult at security gates and concession stands.

“They have to reconfigure how people purchase foods and (souvenirs), and also how people use the bathrooms,” Murphy said. “Ideally, they’ve got to change over so there’s limited hand contact with any hardware in the bathroom. And they’re going to have to get rid of the hot-air hand dryers. That’s just going to blow it all around the room.”

A protester stands along Long Pond Road just outside of the racetrack, after NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, prior to the Pocono 350 at Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa., on June 28, 2020.Matthew O’Haren / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

What has been more surprising than adjusting to the pandemic is how NASCAR has handled the changed national dialogue on racism in the aftermath of video footage showing then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressing his knee into the neck of Floyd, a Black man.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed drivers, teams and fans two days later, before the race May 28 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, “to acknowledge we must do better as a sport.” There was little at the time, however, to differentiate the address from other corporate messaging coming out of league offices across pro sports. This is, after all, a sport where there is just one Black owner, ex-NBA star Brad Daugherty, co-owner of the JTG Daugherty Racing team.

But then June 10, NASCAR shocked fans by banning Confederate flags from all events, just two days after Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., the only black driver in the association’s top series, publicly called for the change. The flags, with a history steeped in slavery and racism, had long been a staple on race weekends, particularly at tracks in the South. One driver in the NASCAR Truck Series, Ray Ciccarelli, announced he was leaving the sport in protest; a small plane pulling the Confederate flag flew over the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama before a June 22 race.

“To put (Phelps’) words into action, the first step had to be the confederate flag and we were able to move quickly and align both as a company and industry to have it removed,” Gregory said. “If we’re going to champion a culture and community that is welcoming and inclusive, these types of symbols cannot be tolerated.”

The historic ban also put Wallace, who now drives with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned across the hood of his No. 43 race car, as a polarizing symbol.

“It’s not like I wanted to be in this position or asked to be in this position, it just happened,” the 26-year-old racer said during a conference call.

Sales of Wallace’s officially licensed merchandise have surged to the top since his June 10 race at Martinsville Speedway, a huge jump for a driver who previously didn’t rank in the top 10.

Two weeks later, Wallace was at the center of another historic moment for the sport as fellow drivers marched alongside his car at Talladega in a show of unity after a noose was reportedly discovered in the garage assigned to him.

The FBI would later rule out a crime in the incident, citing video evidence which shows the rope had been in the stall months before it was assigned to Wallace. But NASCAR doubled down on its support, releasing the evidence photo of the rope to dispel any gossip that the incident was a hoax.

Gregory said the overwhelming positive reaction has shown up in more than just ratings and sales statistics. NASCAR has noticed a number of high profile Black celebrities and influencers on social media asking about future races. The association is betting that they will not drive away many old fans in their attempt to open up the sports to a much more diverse audience.

“Over the past few months, we have been able to showcase what NASCAR is all about to an audience that likely hasn’t considered us before,” Gregory said. “Equally as important is providing our existing fans with the racing they love, and hopefully bringing them a level of escape and normalcy.”

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