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International Headlines

Pope presides over virus prayer in hint normalcy returning

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic and the development of a vaccine as he presided over an outdoor gathering that signaled a semblance of normalcy returning to the Vatican after a coronavirus lockdown lasting more than two months.
Francis was joined in the Vatican Gardens by a representative sampling of people on the front lines of the emergency: a doctor, a nurse, a hospital chaplain, a pharmacist, a journalist and a civil protection official.
A recovered COVID-19 patient, a person with a relative who died during Italy’s outbreak, and the parents of a baby born during the emergency also were among the pope’s more than 100 guests for the prayer at the grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
They sat spaced far apart, and most wore protective masks; Francis didn’t.
In his prayer, Francis urged Mary to comfort those who lost a love one to the virus, He noted that many virus victims died alone due to hospitals needing to prohibit visitors and that the dead were “buried sometimes in a way that wounds the soul.”
He prayed that doctors and nurses are protected from becoming infected themselves and for God to “illuminate the minds of the men and women of science, so that they find the right solutions to beat this illness.”
He begged world leaders to act wisely and generously to provide social and economic relief for the many workers who have lost jobs. And he called for the “enormous sums of money used to grow and perfect armaments be instead used to fund research to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.”
The prayer service, held on a cool evening in the verdant Vatican Gardens, marked Francis’ biggest gathering to date since the Vatican followed Italy in locking down in March to prevent virus infections.
During the peak of the outbreak, when churches were closed for services, Francis livestreamed his morning Masses each day and presided over Holy Week and Easter services without any faithful present. One of the most stirring moments of the outbreak in Italy was his solitary March 27 nighttime prayer for an end to the pandemic in a rain-slicked and empty St. Peter’s Square.
Italy is now opening back up. Francis is due to celebrate a Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, albeit without members of the public in attendance. He will then go to his studio window to recite his blessing at noon to the crowds below.
The Vatican says police will ensure the faithful gathered in the piazza keep an appropriate distance apart.

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International Headlines

In virus-hit South Korea, AI monitors lonely elders

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a cramped office in eastern Seoul, Hwang Seungwon points a remote control toward a huge NASA-like overhead screen stretching across one of the walls.
With each flick of the control, a colorful array of pie charts, graphs and maps reveals the search habits of thousands of South Korean senior citizens being monitored by voice-enabled “smart” speakers, an experimental remote care service the company says is increasingly needed during the coronavirus crisis.
“We closely monitor for signs of danger, whether they are more frequently using search words that indicate rising states of loneliness or insecurity,” said Hwang, director of a social enterprise that handles SK Telecom’s services. Trigger words lead to a recommendation for a visit by public health officials.
As South Korea’s government pushes to allow businesses to access vast amounts of personal information and to ease restrictions holding back telemedicine, tech firms could potentially find much bigger markets for their artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
The drive, resisted for years by civil liberty advocates and medical professionals, has been reinvigorated by a technology-driven fight against COVID-19. It has so far allowed South Korea to emerge as something of a coronavirus success story but also raised broader worries that privacy is being sacrificed for epidemiological gains.
Armed with an infectious disease law that was strengthened after a 2015 outbreak of a different coronavirus, MERS, health authorities have aggressively used credit-card records, surveillance videos and cellphone data to find and isolate potential virus carriers.
Locations where patients went before they were diagnosed are published on websites and released through cellphone alerts. Smartphone tracking apps are used to monitor around 30,000 individuals quarantined at home.
Starting Monday, entertainment venues in Seoul, Incheon and Daejeon will be required to register customers with smartphone QR codes so they can be easily located if needed. The requirement expands nationwide on June 10.
But there’s a dark side.
People here have often managed to trace back the online information to the unnamed virus carriers, exposing embarrassing personal details and making them targets of public contempt.
A low point came in early May when local media described some Seoul nightclubs linked to hundreds of infections as catering to sexual minorities, triggering homophobic responses.
Officials reacted by expanding “anonymous testing,” which allowed people to provide only their phone numbers and not their names during tests. There was a subsequent increase in tests.
The past months have exposed a stark division about the best ways to make important decisions when privacy concerns collide with public health needs, said Haksoo Ko, a Seoul National University law professor and co-director of the school’s Artificial Intelligence Policy Initiative.
Around 3,200 people across the country, mostly older than 70 and living alone, have so far allowed the SK Telecom speakers to listen to them 24 hours a day since the service launched in April 2019.
The company expects users to at least double by the end of the year, judging by local government interest. The technology has reduced human contact in welfare services while still providing governments with a tool to prevent elderly residents from dying alone. That’s especially needed in a country grappling with an aging population and high poverty rates among retirees.
The speakers are built with an artificial intelligence called “Aria” and a lamp that turns blue when processing voice commands for news, music and internet searches. The devices can also use quizzes to monitor the memory and cognitive functions of their elderly users, which would be potentially useful for advising treatments.
But it’s difficult for SK Telecom’s clients to use the information without clear legal guidelines for handling health data on private networks.
Similar reasons may also impede domestic use of health technologies developed by Samsung Electronics, which recently received approval for a smartwatch application that monitors blood pressure.
KT, SK Telecom’s telecommunications rival, is focused on business customers, providing artificial intelligence devices such as speakers and service robots to hotels, offices and new apartments.
President Moon Jae-in’s administration has said data-driven industries will be critical in boosting a pandemic-hit economy.
Officials are preparing regulations for revised data laws that lawmakers passed in January after months of wrangling. They aim to allow businesses greater freedom in collecting and analyzing anonymous personal data without seeking individual consent.
If they work as intended, optimists say the laws would allow artificial intelligence to truly take off and pave the way for highly customized financial and health care services after they start in August.
But activist Oh Byoung-il said the changes could bring excessive privacy infringements unless robust safeguards are installed.
“Companies will always have an endless thirst for data, but you can’t give it to them all,” he said.
Doctors’ groups have also resisted government calls for legalizing telemedicine, raising concerns related to data security and a negative impact on smaller hospitals.
Industrial benefits will be limited if officials can’t find the right combination of techniques to process personal information so that it can’t be used to identify individuals. Health and government authorities have failed to do this during the pandemic.
South Korea’s anti-virus experience provides “lots of lessons and implications” as it steps toward a data-driven economy, Ko said.
“With data, it’s bad to take ‘the more, the better’ approach,” he said. “An appropriate control system needs to be baked into the process, to make decisions on data access based on necessity and sensitivity and restrict access to information that isn’t really needed.”
In Seoul’s Yangcheon district, officials are using SK Telecom’s tech to monitor some 200 seniors who live alone.
Social workers, who have smartphone apps that look like a mini version of the main dashboard, make calls or visits when users don’t use their devices for more than 24 hours.
“It’s nice to have something to talk to,” said Lee Chang-geun, an 89-year-old who has lived alone in his small apartment since his wife died three years ago. “But I wish they developed an Aria function for opening doors. What good is a distress signal if I die while emergency workers try to force open my door?”

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International Headlines

Israeli defense minister apologizes for Palestinian’s death

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister apologized on Sunday for the Israeli police’s deadly shooting of an unarmed, autistic Palestinian man.
The shooting of Iyad Halak, 32, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday, drew broad condemnations and revived complaints alleging excessive force by Israeli security forces.
Benny Gantz, who is also Israel’s “alternate” prime minister under a power-sharing deal, made the remarks at the weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet. He was sat near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made no mention of the incident in his opening remarks.
“We are really sorry about the incident in which Iyad Halak was shot to death and we share in the family’s grief,” Gantz said. “I am sure this subject will be investigated swiftly and conclusions will be reached.”
Halak’s relatives said he had autism and was heading to a school for students with special needs where he studied each day when he was shot.
In a statement, Israeli police said they spotted a suspect “with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol.” When he failed to obey orders to stop, officers opened fire, the statement said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld later said no weapon was found.
Israeli media reported the officers involved were questioned after the incident as per protocol and a lawyer representing one of them sent his condolences to the family in an interview with Israeli Army Radio.
Lone Palestinian attackers with no clear links to armed groups have carried out a series of stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks in recent years.
Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups have long accused Israeli security forces of using excessive force in some cases, either by killing individuals who could have been arrested or using lethal force when their lives were not in danger.
Some pro-Palestinian activists compared Saturday’s shooting to the recent cases of police violence in the U.S.

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National News

Pop-up bar scene, tanning salon test shutdown rules in NYC

NEW YORK (AP) — What passes for a pandemic-era speakeasy these days in New York City isn’t secret at all.
On the sidewalks throughout the city, restaurants and bars that have only been allowed to offer takeout orders since March have been bending the rules by setting up outdoor tables and allowing patrons to linger for an extra round or two served through doors and windows.
Elsewhere around the city, clothing stores and a tanning salon have tried to reopen early — signs that some New Yorkers are itching to catch up with other parts of the country already freeing up their economies.
“It’s been this way more and more each week,” said Levi Nayman, 45, while hanging out outside a piano bar on Manhattan’s Restaurant Row one evening, sipping bourbon and listening to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” through outdoor speakers. “It’s better than nothing.”
The pop-up bar scene should be viewed as a test run for the official reopening, said Paul Denamiel, owner of the French restaurant Le Rivage, where three bar tables sat lined up along a curb.
“We’re sort of doing it now,” Denamiel said. “But we are taking social distancing very seriously.”
The scene was the same farther downtown in Chelsea, where young men and women congregated outside bars as masked bartenders passed drinks out the door. A chalkboard at one spot beckoned, “Coffee and cocktails! Frozen watermelon margarita – $10.”
In recent weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given the green light to some upstate New York businesses to reopen with social-distancing and mask-wearing protocols. Not so in New York City, the national epicenter still reeling from more than 20,000 deaths.
Cuomo said Friday that some businesses in the city will probably be allowed to start reopening on June 8, but even then restaurants and bars in the city won’t be allowed to return to full service for weeks. The first phase of a reopening will allow some construction, wholesale and retail business to resume. The city is still determining what restrictions need to be in place, including capacity limits, before allowing the restaurant industry to reboot.
“I would love them back up and running immediately, but the safety ramifications of bars and restaurants are very different than the phase one industries,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The City Council is looking at trying to allow for proper social distancing by creating more space for outdoor dining. Legislation proposed this week would require the city to identify sidewalks, street and plazas suitable for table service and streamline the permit process that would allow it.
Until then, the New York Police Department has been tasked with visiting thousands of restaurants and small non-essential businesses each day to make sure they’re following the shutdown rules. The NYPD says in the vast majority of cases, officers are getting compliance.
Still, the New York Post reported this week that clothing and other stores in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn were open for business in defiance of the shutdown orders.
And then there’s the case of Bobby Catone, owner of “Sunbelievable” on Staten Island.
Catone caused a stir when he tried to open the tanning salon Thursday with the support of local politicians, only to have the police crash the gathering and slap him with a $1,000 fine.
Canone, 57, said he was merely trying to avoid financial ruin and to satisfy regular customers who were telling him, “Just get me in and I’ll give you an extra $20” for a clandestine tanning session.
“I can’t run a business like that,” Canone said. “I wanted to open honestly.”
Staten Island, despite about 980 coronavirus deaths, “should be treated as a separate region,” he argued. “It’s an island.”
Other New Yorkers are less enthusiastic about the push to loosen the rules. One neighbor of the High Line Hotel in Chelsea recently complained to management about people congregating at tables — without masks — in a front garden where a cart offered coffee drinks. The hotel has since posted a sign saying anyone without a mask will be asked to leave.
“There are people who will say this is harmless,” said Eric Marcus, who wrote about the hotel dust-up in his local newsletter. “But at a time when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not so harmless.”

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National News

Flooded Michigan city is midcentury architecture mecca

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) — Christopher Jue knew he was home the moment he and his wife stepped inside the sprawling 62-year-old ranch with brick floors, a sunken living room and built-in desks, shelves and bureaus — hallmarks of an Alden B. Dow original.
“To say it was a no-brainer is an understatement,” Jue said of their decision to buy eight years ago in Midland, where more than 400 midcentury modern structures have made the city of about 42,000 a mecca for enthusiasts of the architectural style that emphasizes function and features clean lines, repeating patterns and spaces integrated with the outdoors.
Now, many wonder how badly the city’s distinctive buildings — which also include the library, churches and schools — were damaged last week after torrential rains overwhelmed two central Michigan dams and submerged much of the city in water deeper than most residents had ever seen.
“As of right now we don’t know of any that are a total loss, but we don’t know whether all the homeowners will choose to restore them,” said Craig McDonald, director of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio, which started a project called Midcentury Modern Midland three years ago to identify and catalog the city’s midcentury buildings. It documented 437, designed by dozens of architects from the 1930s-70s.
Dow, an architect whose family founded Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, about 130 miles north of Detroit, introduced modernism to the city and built many of its significant buildings. Other notable architects included Glenn Beach, Jackson Hallett, Francis “Red” Warner and Robert E. Schwartz.
Dow’s studio and private home, built between 1934 and 1941, were spared from the flood because the pond that borders the block and glass structure has an outflow to a steep ravine that drains to the Tittabawassee River. The ravine was almost filled when the river crested at an all-time high of just over 35 feet (10.7 meters) “and if it had risen any higher we would have been in trouble,” McDonald said.
Many buildings were similarly unscathed. But others didn’t fare as well.
One of Schwartz’s most famous houses, built in 1964 and known for its dome-shaped shell made with Dow Chemical Styrofoam, took on almost 8 feet (2.4 meters) of water, compared to 3 feet (nearly 1 meter) during a big flood in 2017, said McDonald. He said the house can be saved.
The lower level of the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, which houses the children’s section and the city’s public television studio, also flooded. The library was designed by Alden B. Dow and named after his mother. Restoration from damage caused by the 2017 flood was recently completed inside and outside the building, McDonald said.
McDonald recalled spending time as a child in the midcentury library and sitting on Barcelona chairs and stools, a classic midcentury furniture design, in the gallery and other spaces.
“Every public building in our town was gifted with … beautiful design and it’s what we knew as normal,” McDonald said. “The incredible thing about Midland is that midcentury is woven into our whole community: it’s churches, it’s houses, it’s office buildings, it’s gas stations, it’s flower shops.”
Nobody knew exactly how far Dow’s influence reached or how many midcentury buildings were in the city until Midcentury Modern Midland began digging through city records and canvassing neighborhoods three years ago, director Carol Neff said. And there likely are many more than the 437 listed now because they include only buildings for which the architect, designer or engineers could be authenticated.
“The number’s going to grow,” said Neff. “Ï just hope we don’t lose any.”
Retirees Linda and Charles Mikkelsen said they moved to Midland from Dallas in November “just because of the architecture,” though they had never visited the city before they began looking for a retirement home in Michigan, where Charles grew up.
Their 3,400-square-foot (316-square-meter) home, designed in 1966 by Jackson Hallett, is mostly masonry, brick and glass. Floodwater came through the windows and doors, and was about 2 feet (0.6 meters) deep. But as the Mikkelsens cleaned up and huge dehumidifiers hummed at their house this week, they said they had no regrets.
“This is an incredible town,” said Charles Mikkelsen, for whom living in a midcentury home had been a longtime dream. “This is what we planned to do when we retired.”
Christopher and Claudia Jue have no intention of leaving their 1958 home despite two floods in three years. This time their home, which was built on a concrete slab and overlooks a creek, was filled with about 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water. In 2017, it was flooded by less than a foot (0.3 meters) and it took 9 months to restore. Their street has 19 midcentury homes, including some of the most renowned in Midland.
The Jues, who moved all of their furniture to storage as the water rose, said the house is solidly built — it’s mostly cement and brick, and is structurally sound. The force of the water cracked several large windows, some drywall might have to come down and they’re not sure if the built-in cabinetry can be saved.
But they’ll honor Dow’s original vision with any restoration.
“You can marvel at the beauty, the flow, the colors and the openness (of a Dow home), but you really realize the integrity at a time like this,” Jue said. “That’s the brilliance that probably goes unnoticed.”

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National News

Launch gives spectators pride, reprieve from troubled times

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) — For many spectators who filled parks, beaches and roads along Florida’s Space Coast, the launch of two astronauts into orbit Saturday was a welcome accomplishment and a reprieve from the coronavirus pandemic, economic worries and now unrest in the streets.
“With everything that’s going on in this country right now, it’s important that we do things extraordinary in life,” said Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo who drove from upstate New York to watch the launch. “We’ve been bombarded with doom and gloom for the last six, eight weeks, whatever it is, and this is awesome.”
Dressed in a white astronaut costume, helmet included, Tampa lawyer Tim Engelbrecht marveled at the sight of the rocket lifting off 15 miles away, from a park in Titusville where he watched with his wife and children.
“It’s nice to come out here and have everybody of every stripe, every interest and every opinion come together for something we can all believe in and get behind,” Engelbrecht said. “To see mankind and humankind take the next step is really kind of encouraging, especially in these tough times.”
Doug Marshburn of Deltona, Florida, shouted out, “USA. USA. We’re back in the race,” as the SpaceX rocket lifted through clouds above Kennedy Space Center.
Around him, spectators screamed, whistled and clapped after shouting out the countdown from the 10-second mark. They lifted cameras and cellphones in the air to record the moment.
“I’m very proud of the United States. We are back in the game. It’s very satisfying,” Marshburn said.
Saturday’s launch was the first of NASA astronauts from Florida since 2011, when the space shuttle program ended, and the first by a private company. Since then, Americans have flown on Russian rockets, the only way to and from the International Space Station.
Many spectators had been there just days earlier on Wednesday for the first launch attempt, which was scrubbed due to the weather.
Because of the pandemic, NASA had tried to discourage people from coming for the launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken and had drastically limited employees and visitors inside Kennedy Space Center.
At Space View Park in Titusville, few spectators wore masks and there wasn’t much social distancing. Instead, there was tailgating, lines for the Italian ice truck and a pizza worker who sold dozens of pizzas from an SUV.
After Wednesday’s scrub, Sarah Bryant, along with her sister, Jen Bryant, and four children between them, decided to rent a RV so they could drive from outside Houston to Florida for the launch. They were on the road for 20 hours, and dealt with a blown tire and a checkpoint at the Florida state line meant to ward off people with coronavirus, before arriving early Saturday.
Sarah Bryant’s 14-year-old son, Brooks, is obsessed with space, and had written out a checklist of all the steps in the launch process.
“We just decided to come and within 24 hours we were on the road,” said Jen Bryant.
Omar Francis, who works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center on the space station program, had driven from Houston with his wife, Charlene, and preschool-aged boys, Miles and Carter, to be at Wednesday”s attempt. They came back Saturday and were rewarded by watching the rocket stream through the air.
“For so long, yes, we hear the astronauts are going to space, but you don’t see them leave or come from here,” Francis said. “Now look at all the people who are here seeing astronauts leave from U.S. soil.”

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National News

Police cars burn, windows shatter as protests roil New York

NEW YORK (AP) — Street protests spiraled into New York City’s worst day of unrest in decades Saturday, as fires burned, windows got smashed and dangerous confrontations between demonstrators and officers flared amid crowds of thousands decrying police killings.
A day that began with mostly peaceful marches through Harlem and neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens descended into chaos as night fell.
Demonstrators smashed windows, hurled objects at officers, torched and battered police vehicles and blocked roads with garbage and wreckage. A handful of stores in Manhattan had their windows broken and merchandise stolen.
Officers sprayed crowds with chemicals, and video showed two police cruisers lurching into a crowd of demonstrators on a Brooklyn street, knocking several to the ground, after people attacked it with thrown objects, including something on fire. It was unclear whether anyone was hurt.
It was the third straight day of protests in the city over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, a remarkable outburst after most New Yorkers spent the past two months stuck inside as the coronavirus devastated the city. A night earlier, several thousand people faced off with a force of officers on the streets around a Brooklyn sports arena.
The NYPD said at least 120 people were arrested and at least 15 police vehicles damaged or destroyed.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, blamed the destruction on a small number of agitators who he said “do not represent this city” and were purposely trying to incite violence against police.
“We appreciate and respect all peaceful protest, but now it is time for people to go home,” de Blasio told reporters outside the city’s emergency management headquarters just after 11:30 p.m.
“What we’re seeing is people coming in from outside, a lot of them are purporting to speak about the issues of communities of color, but a lot of them are not from communities of color,” de Blasio said on the local cable news station NY1.
Elsewhere in the state, the mayor in Rochester declared a state of emergency and a 9 p.m. curfew after demonstrators destroyed police cars, setting one on fire, and officers responded with tear gas canisters. Albany police used tear gas and rode horses in efforts to quell demonstrators throwing objects. In Buffalo, numerous storefronts had their windows smashed and a person tried to start a fire in City Hall.
The protests in each city were all held in defiance of a statewide ban on gatherings imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is bigger than the pandemic,” said Brooklyn protester Meryl Makielski, referring to the outbreak that, until recently, was killing hundreds of New Yorkers each day. “The mistakes that are happening are not mistakes. They’re repeated violent terrorist offenses and people need to stop killing black people. Cops seem as though they’ve been trained to do so.”
Earlier in the day, de Blasio had expressed solidarity with demonstrators upset about police brutality, but promised an independent review of demonstrations Friday night in which a mob set fire to a police van and battered police cruisers with clubs and officers beat people with batons.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had asked the state’s attorney general, Letitia James, to lead an inquiry and make a public report.
The mayor said he was upset by videos of confrontations “where protesters were handled very violently” by police, including one that showed a woman being needlessly thrown to the ground.
But he defended officers in the streets, saying they were being subjected “to horrible, vile things.” Of the video of officers driving into a crowd Saturday, de Blasio said it would be investigated, but that the officers acted because they were being attacked.
Violence early Saturday resulted in federal charges against three people suspected of building and throwing Molotov cocktails at police vehicles in two separate incidents in Brooklyn.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn said Samantha Shader, 27, of Catskill, New York, admitted under questioning to throwing her device at a van occupied by four officers. It did not ignite and the officers were unharmed, police said. Shader’s sister, Dorian, was also arrested and will face charges in state court, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office said.
Colinford Mattis, 32, and Urooj Rahman, 31, both of Brooklyn, are accused of targeting a police van. They were charged under a federal statute regarding the use of fire and explosives to cause damage to a police vehicle and each face 5 to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Information on their lawyers was not immediately available.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said more than 200 people were arrested and multiple officers were injured in Friday night’s protests, including one who lost a tooth.
Asked to comment on videos that showed officers shoving peaceful protesters to the ground and hitting people with batons, Shea said those acts would be investigated.
But, he said, “It is very hard to practice de-escalation when there is a brick being thrown at your head.”
“It is by the grace of God that we don’t have dead officers today,” he said.
In a peaceful gathering Saturday afternoon, the Rev. Al Sharpton addressed several hundred people in Staten Island at the spot where Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer in 2014. He was accompanied by Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr.
Sharpton noted that Floyd, who died Monday in Minneapolis after an officer pressed his knee into his neck, had also fallen unconscious gasping for air.
“Right at this spot is where we heard Eric Garner say what six years later was said by George: ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Cuomo noted that Floyd’s death was just the latest in a long list of similar deaths, and he said he shared in the outrage over “this fundamental injustice.”
“But violence is not the answer. It never is the answer,” he said. “The violence obscures the righteousness of the message and the mission.”

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National News

Many states scrambling to update hurricane plans for virus

Officials across the U.S. South are still scrambling to adjust their hurricane plans to the coronavirus. The big unknown: Where will people fleeing storms go?
The Associated Press surveyed more than 70 counties and states from Texas to Virginia, with more than 60% of coastal counties saying as of late May that they’re still solidifying plans for public hurricane shelters. They’re also altering preparations for dealing with the sick and elderly, protective equipment and cleanup costs.
In Georgia’s McIntosh County, south of Savannah, Emergency Management Agency Director Ty Poppell said evacuations during the pandemic would be a “nightmare.” He worried about social distancing at shelters and on buses used to get people out.
“I’d love to be able to tell you we’ve got that answered right now,” Poppell said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Hurricane season officially starts Monday, though Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha arrived early. Forecasters are expecting a busier-than-normal season.
“Everything that we do will be affected in one way or another, big and/or small, by COVID-19,” Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said.
Many counties are taking federal advice and hope to use hotels as smaller-scale shelters, while others plan to use more parts of schools besides large gymnasiums. Still others, especially in Louisiana, plan for big shelters with more social distancing.
Officials emphasize that shelters are last resorts, urging people to stay with friends or in hotels. But massive unemployment is making the expense of hotels less feasible.
“Our biggest change to our hurricane plan is sheltering. How are we going to shelter those that have to evacuate? How are going to shelter those that are positive COVID patients? There are multiple ideas that we are considering right now,” Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Greg Michel said.
During tornadoes in April, the state used hotels as shelters, which was good practice for hurricane season, he said.
Most counties surveyed said they’re still figuring out shelters.
While that may sound worrisome, it could be beneficial because emergency managers need to update plans as the pandemic changes, University of South Carolina disaster expert Susan Cutter said.
“Disasters are not going to stop for COVID-19,” Brad Kieserman, an American Red Cross executive, told reporters in May. “Hope is not a plan. And we’ve got to plan for tens of thousands of people to evacuate in the face of hurricanes and wildfires and other disasters.”
Some officials acknowledged they aren’t as ready for storm season as they were a year ago because of the virus. Others were more confident.
“We feel the current rating of preparedness for Craven County (North Carolina) is 50% or lower as we still have not finalized shelter options,” said Stanley Kite, emergency services director of the county hit by 2018’s Hurricane Florence. “Before COVID-19, would have estimated 90%.”
Shelters were the most mentioned worry, but comfort levels with other aspects of hurricane preparations varied, reflecting the difference in how states plan for disasters. Having enough staff for shelters is a persistent problem locally and nationally, said Walton County, Florida, emergency management chief Jeff Goldberg.
Protective equipment is the biggest shortfall in several North Carolina counties. Money is always an issue, with counties often waiting for federal reimbursement. Handling nursing homes, hospitals and COVID-19 patients “is one of the most difficult challenges and would require a larger state response,” said Jeffrey Johnson, fire chief in Newport News, Virginia.
Other places downplayed concerns. Orleans Parish, where 2005’s Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, has added social distancing and protective equipment to a 10-year-old plan that’s otherwise “essentially unchanged. It’s a good plan,” said Collin Arnold, head of the city’s emergency preparedness office.
A year ago, officials in North Carolina’s Beaufort County would have rated their readiness going into hurricane season at a 95 on a 0-to-100 scale. With the virus, that’s down to 75. Brad Baker, emergency management director of Florida’s Santa Rosa County, gave the same numbers “because there’s a lot of unknowns with COVID.”
In Nueces County, Texas, which was swamped by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, officials said they were at a 95 going into hurricane season last year. Now, it’s below 80, emergency management coordinator Melissa Munguia said. If another Harvey brings 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain, she said the same reinforcements won’t arrive because “everybody’s been working their personnel for many hours for over 100 days.”
Florida officials were far more upbeat.
“While COVID-19 complicates things and you have to plan around COVID-19, I think Florida is as prepared as ever before in response to a hurricane,” said Moskowitz, the state emergency management chief.
In Louisiana, disaster officials said they’re used to “overlapping emergencies, and you just have to plow through.”
They anticipate making adjustments, “but it’s hard to pin down what those changes will be,” said Mike Steele, spokesman for the state’s emergency preparedness office. By August and September, typically the height of Louisiana’s hurricane season, the number of infections and social distancing requirements may have changed, he said.
Coping with a hurricane is hard, and the coronavirus “is going to make it a little bit more difficult,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Pete Gaynor told reporters in May. But he said FEMA has hired 500 people since March and has a record of nearly $80 billion in its disaster fund.
Vice President Mike Pence told President Donald Trump on Thursday that the federal government would ensure state and local authorities can handle hurricanes. “Bottom line, Mr. President, we’re ready.”
Academics who study disasters aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think they (federal officials) are doing the job they should be doing. I worry about their ability to handle a very large hurricane in addition to COVID-19,” University of South Carolina’s Cutter said.
She and others said mixed messages on the coronavirus means some people aren’t believing what they’re hearing from Washington in an emergency.
“I think our lives are in danger now because we don’t trust the federal government,” Cutter said.
Between the pandemic, a crashing economy and patchy federal responses to three 2017 hurricanes, people should prepare for little help from the government, Virginia Commonwealth University emergency preparedness professor Hans-Louis Charles said.
Experts also worry that it could take longer to return to normal after a hurricane. Search and rescue teams, utility workers who restore power lines and volunteers who help clean up may be slowed or not respond at all because of concerns over virus exposure, experts said. That and other issues may mean a storm that in the past caused $12 billion in insured damage, like 2018’s Hurricane Michael, may cost 20% more, catastrophic risk modeler Karen Clark said.
While many officials are still trying to figure out shelters, they said if people are told to evacuate in a hurricane, residents must go. Storm surge is more dangerous than the virus, officials said.
“In hurricane season, we can’t have mixed messages. If you live in an evacuation zone, your plan is to evacuate if ordered to do so by local officials,” former FEMA director Craig Fugate said. “This message will not change, COVID or no COVID.”

Categories
New Hampshire

Work planned for several days on Spaulding Turnpike Bridge

DOVER, N.H. (AP) — Work is planned for several days on the Spaulding Turnpike Bridge over Route 108 in Dover, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation said.
The work is scheduled to start Monday, and be finished Wednesday. It will require temporary ramp and lane closures.
The turnpike southbound will be reduced to one lane at the Exit 7 interchange and the on ramp will be closed. Route 108 traffic seeking to enter the turnpike’s southbound ramp will be directed via signs and message boards to use the northbound ramp and reverse direction at Exit 8.

Categories
International Headlines

US: Russian jets in Libya present broader worries for region

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Africa Command flatly rejected Russian claims that Moscow did not deploy fighter jets to Libya, saying Friday that the 14 aircraft flown in reflect Russia’s longer term goal to establish a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies.
Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, deputy director for intelligence, said the U.S. tracked the MiG-29 fighter jets and SU-24 fighter bombers that were flown in by Russian military, passing through Iran and Syria before landing at Libya’s al-Jufra air base. The base is the main forward airfield for Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army, that have been waging an offensive to capture Tripoli.
“If Russia secures a permanent position in Libya and, worse, deploys long range missile systems, it will be a game changer for Europe, NATO and many Western nations,” said Hadfield. Russia’s interference in Libya, he said, give it access to that country’s oil and a “military base strategically positioned in striking distance of Europe.”
Russia has denied links to the aircraft, calling the claim “stupidity.” Instead, Viktor Bondarev, the former Russian air force chief who heads the defense committee in the upper house of parliament, said the planes are not Russian, but could be Soviet-era aircraft owned by other African nations.
Hadfield disputed that, saying there were none of those aircraft in that part of Africa. And, he said, “not only did we watch them fly from Russia by way of Iran and Syria to Libya, we were able to photograph them at multiple points.”
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east allied with Hifter and one in Tripoli, in the west, supported by the United Nations.
Hadfield said the fighter aircraft will likely provide close air support and offensive strikes for the Wagner Group, a Russia-based state-sponsored company that employs mercenaries to fight alongside the eastern forces of Hifter.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last year, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak government there. Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
In an interview with a small group of reporters, Hadfield said the new fighter aircraft have not yet been used. But he said they will have to be flown either by pilots from Russia or contractors employed by Wagner. He said there have been about 2,000 personnel at the base, but more have been flown in.
Another concern, said Hadfield, is that there also are Russian surface-to-air missiles there. But currently, he said, they are older models, and not state-of-the-art weapons.
Eastern European nations have been increasingly concerned about Russia’s expanding military involvement and incursions in the region, on NATO’s southern flank.