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News Brief: Pandemic Relief, More Ga. Businesses Open, Post COVID-19


What does Congress need to do to prepare the country to reopen?


Two former federal officials have some thoughts on this. Andy Slavitt led the agency that oversees the Affordable Care Act. Scott Gottlieb was President Trump's FDA chief. Together, they've written a letter to congressional leaders proposing $46 billion in public health investments. The program starts with a vastly expanded force of people who can do contact tracing to learn who has been exposed to the virus.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordonez was able to get a first look at the recommendations and is on the line. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hope you had a nice weekend. What makes a proposal from these particular ex-officials such a big deal?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, it's not every day that a former top official from the Trump administration teams up with a former top official from the Obama administration.


ORDOÑEZ: And both of these guys are insiders. They have been advising lawmakers, the White House, as well as governors, but doing so separately. So really, to pull together in a bipartisan way is significant. It increases their influence. It certainly shows how serious both of them are taking this. And it reflects how important it is to find common ground with so many various perspectives during this fight.

INSKEEP: Well, when they find common ground, what does their proposal say?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, it says that they understand that it's important to reopen the economy, as the administration wants and many governors want. And they argue it can be done safely, but that it's going to take a major investment to targeted areas of the public health system. For example, they say the existing public health system is only capable of providing, quote, "a fraction of the contact tracing and voluntary self-isolation capabilities" - that you mentioned earlier - needed to reopen the economy safely.

Slavitt told me there is no silver bullet. But if that we want to get back to a more normal existence, that the government needs to give states the tools to contain this virus. And they lined up a group of public health officials. It's not only them. Others include a former Bush FDA chief and a former surgeon general in the Obama administration to push their cause.

INSKEEP: Well, if we only have a fraction of the capability that we need, what would have to change to improve that?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, what they are specifically proposing for that $46 billion includes expanding the workforce that kind of tracks down the exposed individuals by 180,000 people. And that would be until a vaccine is brought to the market, which could be next year. It will also pay for hotels so that the infected and exposed people without a place to stay, without a place to self-isolate, have somewhere to go. Also, a good chunk of the money - about $30 billion - would go toward people - paying people, actually, for voluntary self-isolating. That proposal calls for paying these individuals kind of, like, $50 a day. It's kind of like jury duty.

INSKEEP: And when you say 180,000 people hired to do contact tracing, that's an army of people across this country who would be doing that work. How does that fit in with what governors are doing since they're the ones deciding whether to reopen the economy?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. They've really been struggling with how to do this and kind of, you know, deal with these combating interests. A handful of states have already relaxed their social distancing guidelines - Alaska, Georgia, Tennessee. Others, like North Carolina and Michigan, have extended their restriction. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, she was on ABC this week defending her order to stay.


GRETCHEN WHITMER: What we know is that we have to have robust testing. We have to have community tracing. You got to have a plan for isolation for people that do get tested positive for COVID-19 in the future.

ORDOÑEZ: So it's interesting. She basically summed up what Slavitt and Gottlieb are proposing.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You don't just need more testing. You need the capability to do something about what the testing reveals. Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Franco Ordonez. And you can hear an interview with Scott Gottlieb and Andy Slavitt about their proposal on today's MORNING EDITION.


INSKEEP: Residents of Georgia may go out for dinner and a movie tonight.

MARTIN: Yeah. Governor Brian Kemp has been lifting statewide restrictions there. Dine-in restaurants and theaters can reopen today if they want. Gyms, bowling alleys and barbershops already have that permission. This is happening despite criticism from public health experts and President Trump himself, who said he was for Georgia's reopening before he was against it.

INSKEEP: Emma Hurt from member station WABE in Atlanta has been covering the reopening and is on the line. Good morning.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First question - restaurants may reopen. But they know the risks. Are they choosing to reopen?

HURT: Yes. I mean, some are. One iconic restaurant chain here in Georgia right off the bat is Waffle House. They say they've been prepping for this day for weeks. And most of their 400 Georgia stores are going to open today. But it'll look a lot different. There'll be closed booths and seats blocked off so parties are further apart. No condiments or menus on tables. Njeri Boss is their head of PR. And she told me this is almost an experiment because nobody knows how customers are going to react - if they're even going to come.

NJERI BOSS: We're saying, hey. We're here. We're open. And we're here to serve our community as they need us.

HURT: She's making the point that this has been really hard on their furloughed employees and their suppliers. Their takeout business hasn't been great because a lot of their business is tied to late-night concerts and bars. And they need a chance to try to find a way to open up safely.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Also, you know, takeout waffles, they don't work all that well. Have some businesses just decided to stay closed?

HURT: Yeah. I mean, just look at another iconic Georgia chain, Chick-fil-A. They're staying curbside and drive-through. And I spent the weekend, Steve, calling all over the state. And it's difficult to find restaurants that are ready to open today, particularly in Atlanta. A lot of owners are saying it's just too early, like Sylvester Serrano (ph). He owns several restaurants with his brothers in south Georgia.

SYLVESTER SERRANO: I just think it's too early, you know? There's still a lot of cases. And there's more cases added every single day. So I just don't think it's right.

HURT: Many restaurants are bringing in some revenue from curbside and takeout. So unlike hair salons and tattoo parlors, there has been some business happening. It's also worth noting, though, it's not easy for them to open right now. There's nearly 40 lines of regulations for restaurants to follow the state has released if they do want to open in this time, including masks and screening employees for symptoms. Theaters, as you mentioned, are technically allowed to open as well. But it's hard to find any that are. You know, film studios aren't releasing new movies right now, which could contribute to that.

INSKEEP: Well, how was the weekend for the businesses that were allowed to open last week on Friday in Georgia, like gyms and bowling alleys? What's it been like there?

HURT: So the Georgia State Patrol, which is tasked with enforcing this, only issued two warnings over the weekend for social distancing violations. I checked back in with a tattoo parlor owner in Columbus in west Georgia that I interviewed last week. He said he's had nearly 50 customers - excuse me - over the weekend. And everyone's been respecting his rules, wearing masks.

I talked to a bowling alley in the city of Warner Robins in middle Georgia. People have been respecting his rule, too - I mean, only taking staggered reservations so they can clean all the balls and services. Only every third lane is open. And he's saying, again, look; businesses should be able to try to retool their business models to try to do things safely.

INSKEEP: Emma Hurt of WABE will continue tracking that effort as it continues. Emma, thanks so much.

HURT: Thank you.


INSKEEP: The pandemic has changed the way that many Americans live and, for those fortunate enough, work.

MARTIN: Sheltering in place has made us more self-reliant in some ways. But simultaneously, it's made us more dependent on technology. And a newfound vigilance against contagion is already changing the way we look at basic interactions like hugs, handshakes, eating out. So how else might we see a new normal going forward?

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking at some of this and joins us now. Hey there, Allison.


INSKEEP: What would it take for people to be returning to public spaces like a mall or a playground or public transportation?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, you know, one idea out there is to use UV light to disinfect public spaces - UVC light, to be specific. This technique is currently used to, say, sanitize medical equipment. You may see this in a dentist's office. The light can destroy viruses and bacteria. And I spoke to Andrea Armani - she's a researcher at USC - about the potential here.

ANDREA ARMANI: Currently, one area that I'm collaborating with an expert in robotics on is actually developing a semi-autonomous robot that is able to kind of go into spaces, clean areas, but where the human operator is not with the robot.

INSKEEP: OK. So first, we're talking about, like, a Roomba - or whatever it's called - except it's blasting light everywhere...

AUBREY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Which sounds great. But I guess we should clarify, this is using intense light to clean inanimate objects, right?

AUBREY: That's right. You would not want to use this on people. You may recall the president last week tossed out the idea of using UV light on people. That would be dangerous. It would cause skin cancer. But the idea here is to use it, as you say, on surfaces. And these robots, if they come to pass, would be used in the middle of the night when people are not around.

INSKEEP: Something that I've noticed - a change that I've noticed in my life is that a doctor's appointment is no longer face-to-face...

AUBREY: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...There's telemedicine. I'm looking at a screen. Is that going to continue?

AUBREY: Sure. I think, in addition to these virtual visits with our health care providers, I think this may become a part of the new norm. We're also going to be using more gadgets at home to monitor or to assist monitoring our own health. Last week, a doctor wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about a device that's as easy to use as a thermometer - it's called a pulse oximeter - to measure oxygen saturation.

He suggested this could be a way for people with COVID symptoms to flag a drop in oxygen levels. So the idea is that it could provide a kind of early warning of the breathing problems that come along with COVID and pneumonia - could also be useful for people with asthma. Now, it is noted that - a lot of people may have seen this with this column. At the moment, it's tough to find a pulse ox online. I looked last night. A lot of them are sold out or back-ordered.

INSKEEP: You know, Allison, much earlier in the pandemic, you and I were talking. We were actually in the same studio back when that could happen. And I think we did a kind of elbow bump. It would be nice to get back to where I could be close enough to anyone to do an elbow bump.

AUBREY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: But how is basic interaction going to change once we get back to it?

AUBREY: You know, I think people are going to be wary of, you know, salad bars and buffets because of all those shared utensils. In terms of greeting each other, I think we're just going to move to these low-touch or no-touch greetings, you know? Hugging and kissing and handshaking may be off the table.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Allison, I send you a virtual handshake.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you so much. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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