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How the coronavirus led to the highest-ever spike in US gun sales

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Americans grappling with the rapidly-spreading coronavirus purchased more guns last month than at any other point since the FBI began collecting data over 20 years ago. Why?

With the death toll climbing every day and most of the country under some form of lockdown, many Americans seem to be turning to guns as part of their response.

And it’s not just about fears over social disorder, say experts.

What do the figures show?

The FBI conducted 3.7m background checks in March 2020, the highest total since the instant background check programme began in 1998.

The figure represents an increase of 1.1m over March 2019.

On 21 March alone, 210,000 checks were done, the largest one-day record ever.

According to US media, the FBI data indicates that over two million guns were purchased in March alone.

Illinois led with nearly a half million sales, followed by Texas, Kentucky, Florida, and California.

Gun shops across the country report that they are unable to re-stock shelves quickly enough to cope with the rush.

The latest figure also tops the previous high of 3.3 million, which was set in December 2015 after the Obama administration raised the possibility of restricting assault rifles in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Why are sales skyrocketing?

According to Georgia State University law school professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on the US gun industry, most new gun sales are being motivated by two factors that have been spurred on by the coronavirus crisis.

The first is the concern that civil society – fire, police and health services – could be severely “eroded” someday, leading to a breakdown in law and order. In such a case, a gun can be viewed as a “self-help” survival tool, he says.

The second reason is concerns over so-called big government infringing on American freedoms such as gun ownership, which is enshrined in the US constitution.

“Many of the public health measures, such as shelter-in-place, restricting peoples’ movements, restricting what people can buy,” Mr Lytton says, “raises fears among many groups of the potential for government takeover and tyranny.”

In some ways these two reasons are in opposition to each other, he tells BBC News.

“Some people are worried about the fact that government’s falling apart and won’t protect them, and other people are worried that the government is getting too strong and is going to limit their freedom.”

Why I bought my first guns

One new gun owner told BBC News that he made the decision to buy his first two firearms on 12 March, one day after the NBA announced that they were suspending all games.

The man, who asked that his name not be used, says he views his decision as an extension of the guidance he had seen from emergency officials, who have told Americans to consider having a few days supply of food and water in case of any disruptions to the supply chain.

“I think it’s hard to discount the very minor chance of there being temporary civil unrest where I can’t rely on the police department.

“And a gun is cheap insurance against that,” says the man, who grew up in Berkeley, California and now lives in Chicago.

It’s all well and good to have a stockpile of food and supplies, but there is no use having all that without a means of defending it, he argues.

What’s the reaction been?

Some states have allowed gun stores to continue to operate as “essential” businesses despite mandatory lockdown orders affecting around 90% of the US.

New York, Massachusetts, and New Mexico have forced shops to close but have allowed them to continue selling online. Washington state ordered shops to close, but several continued to operate despite the ban.

Gun control advocacy groups have praised the closures.

“There is no constitutional right to immediately buy or sell guns. And there certainly is no right to spread coronavirus while buying or selling guns,” Kris Brown, president of the anti-gun violence Brady Campaign, told NBC News.

Shannon Watts, from the group Moms Demand Action, said her concern was for the families of new gun owners, who she says are adding danger to an already volatile situation.

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Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), said in a statement to BBC News that “headlines about prisoner furloughs and law enforcement selectively responding to calls have made many realise ​the gravity of self-defense during these unprecedented times.

“In addition, efforts by some anti-gun politicians to shutter gun stores have deeply concerned law-abiding Americans. That is why the NRA makes no apology for our efforts to ensure gun stores stay open so law-abiding people can exercise their right to defend themselves and their families.”

What else can influence gun sales?

US domestic politics often influence gun sales, as Democratic candidates are viewed as more likely to crack down on gun rights than Republicans such as President Trump.

Gun sales spiked after President Obama’s two election victories, and rose in 2016 as Hillary Clinton rose in the presidential polls and was widely expected to defeat Mr Trump. Sales then dropped off after Mr Trump’s victory.

Mass shootings, which also trigger concerns among gun advocates of a crackdown on private ownership, also cause sales of guns and ammo to go up.

“It tends to go up and down depending on what people’s anxiety levels are,” says Mr Lytton.

Normally the concern is over access to weapons, he adds.

“Or in this case it’s anxiety about the deterioration of government – or the growth of government.”

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Coronavirus experiences add stress for emergency care workers

The memory of seeing dozens of coronavirus-infected senior citizens isolated at a nursing home in northern Spain haunts Juan González.

González, director of training for an emergency health team that serves the Asturias region, recently responded to a nursing home where seniors who were not infected were separated from those who were ill, which he agreed made sense. But seeing the 80 or so seniors left behind for treatment amid the deadly virus while his team relocated the healthy made a powerfully sad impression on González, one he cannot shake no matter how he tries.

“I barely get a couple of hours of sleep. I wake up in a panic, startled,” he said recently at Transinsa, an emergency transport service with 150 ambulances.

“It is a war without bombs,” said González, who also struggles with knowing that colleagues may become infected while doing their jobs. “We are on the front line and sometimes what protects you is a double-edged sword. If you touch a contaminated surface with the glove, the glove is the enemy.”

Spain, one of the nations hardest-hit by the coronavirus, has seen ambulance companies report hundreds of workers stricken by COVID-19, according to data from the country’s National Federation of Ambulance Cos., or ANEA. The 17 autonomous regions in Spain mainly hire private health transport companies for emergency services.

The country had recorded more than 135,000 cases of people infected with the coronavirus and more than 13,000 deaths as of Monday.

Emergency service centers throughout Spain and elsewhere receive calls all day, with numbers much higher in recent weeks because of the coronavirus.

“All the centers are overloaded at the moment. We have a lot of calls from the elderly, people up to 103 years old,” said Eva Salas, head of the Transinsa ambulance service coordination center based in the city of Oviedo, in the Asturias region.

For the country’s nearly 29,000 emergency health technicians, there is no respite. The emergency call center, which operates 24 hours, is bombarded with requests for help with coronavirus cases.

In less than a month, that ambulance company had performed more than 1,000 coronavirus transfers and 2,000 home tests. Every person who tests positive or who is suspected of having the coronavirus has to be transferred by ambulance from home to a medical center.

“We try to have as few casualties as possible. The situation generates fear and a lot of stress among our colleagues, but we must remain calm,” said Carlos Paniceres, director of Transinsa.

A call for help came into the office related to COVID-19. Manuel López and his colleague Carlos Valdés prepared to respond.

They joked as they put on their protective equipment, though there also was a sense of concern. A few hours before, they had been notified that two of their former ambulance crew members had tested positive for the coronavirus.

As López drove the ambulance, the sound of the siren, almost as strong as the smell of disinfectant, broke the sepulchral silence that for days had dominated the streets of Spain. The country’s 47 million people have been living in confinement since March 14 per government orders to try to contain the virus.

A woman received them at her apartment. Upon seeing the paramedics in protective gear, she quickly said she thought she was suffering from allergies or the flu, not the coronavirus.

Her words were cut short by her dry cough and breathing difficulty. She put on a protective mask. She said her chest hurt.

Over the course of a day, Valdés and López make up to four transfers to hospitals. It’s a tiring task. Cleaning the ambulance after each trip can take up to 45 minutes.

In some cases, emergency workers face concerns about adequate protective equipment while dealing with the workload.

“We have twice as many casualties, either because they have the virus, or because they have isolated themselves. We are facing a workload that has never been seen before,” said Carlos Magdaleno, president of the National Federation of Ambulance Cos.

Magdaleno said hundreds of ambulance workers have decided to isolate themselves for fear of infecting their families.

The Health Ministry and the General Council of Official Assns. of Psychologists of Spain recently set up a helpline to provide psychological support for people who are struggling amid the pandemic. The telephone service is aimed at managing outbreak-related stress and discomfort.

“Physically we are exhausted, but more so mentally. When the day is over, you collapse,” González said.

Psychologist Raquel Villa, who meets with emergency technicians to offer assistance in coping with traumatic experiences, said her 12-year-old daughter was sent to live with her grandparents in the countryside to try to keep her from being infected.

“Post-traumatic stress is going to be society’s pandemic disease after this is over,” Villa said.

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Biden and Trump speak by phone about coronavirus response

The phone call is a rare moment of direct communication between the two political rivals. Trump has harshly criticized Biden for months, and his efforts to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, was the catalyst for launching impeachment proceedings against the President.

Biden has criticized Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the administration was too slow to address the crisis. He has also said that Trump should stop talking and listen to experts.

“Vice President Biden and President Trump had a good call. VP Biden shared several suggestions for actions the Administration can take now to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and expressed his appreciation for the spirit of the American people in meeting the challenges facing the nation,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement.

A source familiar with the call says the conversation lasted more than 10 minutes.

The phone call comes hours after Trump attacked Biden on Twitter, questioning the delay of the Democratic National Convention until August.

Trump added, “Also, what ever happened to that phone call he told the Fake News he wanted to make to me?”

The possibility of a phone call was first raised last week.

“Our teams will be in touch and we will arrange a call,” Bedingfield said in a statement last week, after Trump was asked about Biden’s offer to speak with him at his daily coronavirus press briefing.

“I would absolutely take his call,” Trump said. “I would love to speak with him, sure.”

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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Boris Johnson moved to intensive care unit with coronavirus symptoms

Johnson, 55, was first admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London on Sunday evening for what he said were “routine tests,” saying on social media that he was in “good spirits.”

But the apparent change in the leader’s health has shocked the nation, with politicians from his party and the opposition voicing their support for the leader, as the country battles an outbreak that has killed more than 5,000 people.

“Over the course of this afternoon, the condition of the Prime Minister has worsened and, on the advice of his medical team, he has been moved to the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

According to Downing Street officials, Johnson remains conscious and has been moved to the intensive care unit as a precaution, in case he requires ventilation.

The move strikes a sharp contrast to earlier reports on Johnson’s condition: During his period of self-isolation, Downing Street had said that Johnson’s symptoms were “mild,” and on Sunday said his hospitalization was just a “precautionary step.”

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson had said earlier on Monday that Johnson spent a “comfortable” night in hospital, but would not comment on reports Johnson was given oxygen. Officials are no longer describing his symptoms as mild.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is the First Secretary of State and the most senior Cabinet minister, said Johnson had asked him to deputize for the leader where necessary.

Raab chaired Monday’s regular morning coronavirus briefing and made a televised statement saying that the government will continue Johnson’s direction in responding to the outbreak.

“The government’s business will continue and the Prime Minister is in safe hands with a brilliant team at St Thomas’s hospital. And the focus of the government will continue to be on making sure that the Prime Minister’s direction, all the plans for making sure that we can defeat coronavirus and can pull the country through this challenge, will be taken forward,” he said.

He added there was an “incredibly strong team spirit” in government behind the Prime Minister.

Johnson was moved to the intensive care unit at around 7 p.m., Downing Street said. The decision was made by the leader’s medical team after his condition worsened over the afternoon on Monday.

The United Kingdom’s death toll of above 5,000 is one of the highest in the world. The government has been scrambling to implement widespread testing as evidence grows that asymptomatic people could carry and spread the virus.

‘Together we will beat this,’ Johnson said

Johnson was hospitalized Sunday because he was still suffering coronavirus symptoms 10 days after testing positive for the virus.

The British leader announced on March 27 that he had been infected and was, at the time, suffering mild symptoms including a cough and fever.

At the time, he vowed to continue leading the nation’s response to the outbreak and hold meetings via video-conference, saying in a video: “Together we will beat this.”

British politicians from Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, as well as the main opposition Labour Party, have united in their wishes for the Prime Minister’s recovery.

Treasurer Rishi Sunak said on Twitter that his thoughts were with Johnson and his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds.

“I know he’ll be getting the best care possible and will come out of this even stronger,” he said.

Symonds has also experienced Covid-19 symptoms but said over the weekend she was “on the mend.”

The leader of the country’s House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, said Johnson’s admission to intensive care was “terrible news.”

“I know the thoughts and prayers of everyone across the House are with the Prime Minister and his family right now. We all wish him a speedy recovery.”

A still from a video that UK Prime MInister Boris Johnson uploaded on March 27 to announce he had been infected.
Keir Starmer, the newly elected leader of the main opposition Labour Party said the development was “Terribly sad news.”

“All the country’s thoughts are with the Prime Minister and his family during this incredibly difficult time.”

And former Prime Minister Theresa May, who was replaced by Johnson in the country’s Brexit crisis, also sent her wishes to the leader on Twitter.

“My thoughts and prayers are with @BorisJohnson and his family as he continues to receive treatment in hospital. This horrific virus does not discriminate. Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it. Please #StayHomeSaveLives,” May wrote.

French President Emmanuel Macron also sent his wishes. “I send all my support to Boris Johnson, to his family and to the British people at this difficult moment. I wish him a speedy recovery at this testing time.”

Before being moved to intensive care, Johnson had said he was keeping in touch with his team and thanked staff at Britain’s National Health Service for taking care of him.

US President Donald Trump had expressed sympathy after Johnson was initially hospitalized, calling him “a strong man and a strong person.” In a news conference Sunday night, President Trump said: “I want to express our nation’s well wishes to Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he wages his own personal fight with the virus.”

“All Americans are praying for him. He’s a friend of mine, he’s a great gentleman and a great leader.”

CNN’s Lauren Kent, Nikki Carvajal, Susannah Cullinane, Milena Veselinovic and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed reporting.

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Voting during pandemic? It’s happened before in the U.S.

In early March, while the remaining Democratic presidential contenders were sprinting across the country in search of primary victories, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking its own destructive path through the nation. States with upcoming primaries were forced by the novel virus to reconsider a question from a century ago about how to keep the public safe at the ballot box.

The last time a health emergency so imperiled American politics was in 1918, when the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans and was dubbed the “mother of all pandemics.” The flu peaked in October and November that year, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians, just days before the midterm elections on November 5.

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“Polls Not Opened In This Precinct; Too Much Influenza,” the Sacramento Bee said in a headline on Nov. 6, 1918.

Unlike politicians today, who bring epidemiologists and doctors to their briefings, their predecessors 102 years ago were equipped with much less scientific insight. They were also running out of time to hold necessary elections, since Congress in 1845 mandated congressional elections on the first Tuesday of November.

Newspaper accounts reviewed by CBS News show states forged ahead with politics, even as campaigns across the country in 1918 were forced to hit pause on traditional campaigning.

In Louisville, campaigns were banned from public speaking because of the contagion, a decision the Twice A Week Messenger called “the most unusual situation that has ever been met with in a political campaign in this state as a result of the influenza epidemic.”

“We are going to cooperate fully…and will call off all meetings scheduled where there is evidence of any danger whatever,” Democratic Campaign Committee spokesman James Garnett told the paper.
To skirt similar gathering bans in Kansas, some campaigns in the state moved their speeches to outdoor churches. But once state health officials found out, those were quickly outlawed, too.

“Plans for different party organizations to whip things up…has gone ‘bluey’ owing to the flu,” The Wichita Daily Eagle in Kansas wrote in October 1918, predicting voters could only expect “hot stuff” in the press from campaign “spellbinders,” the more colorful term for surrogates. 

In Wisconsin, candidates were “working quietly” with newspaper advertising and mailing campaign literature, since “politics in Wisconsin has been indefinitely adjourned by the epidemic of influenza,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal on October 27, 1918. 

One silver lining to the lighter campaign schedule? “Defeated candidates will probably blame the epidemic for their defeat, but they, as well as the successful ones will have saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars as the result of the epidemic,” the Journal added.

As Election Day approached, activist groups relied on issues-based appeals to encourage voting, even as the pandemic spread.

Alcohol prohibition was on the ballot in at least eight states in 1918, and temperance activists like the Muskingum County Dry Federation in Ohio’s The Times Recorder accused the liquor industry of trying to profit off the “suffering and deaths of human beings” because of the flu. “They are industriously circulating reports everywhere that whiskey is a cure for the great influenza epidemic,” the group argued in the paper.
Prohibition opponents bought a full-page ad in Florida’s The Tampa Times and declared, “liquor has saved many a life recently in this terrible epidemic of Influenza,” citing reports of the use of liquor in “alcohol baths” for Iowa flu patients and as stimulants for sick military men in Camp Lee, Virginia.

Suffragists also hoped to draw supporters to the 1918 polls to build on the 12 states where women had already won the right to vote, according to the National Constitution Center. Even as some Louisiana newspapers warned about the grim flu statistics, the Shreveport Journal captured women suffragists organizing Election Day canvassing by foot and automobile. As the flu raged in Nevada, a state where women had been able to vote for four years, suffragists sought revenge at the polls. “Rebuke the Democratic Party!” one ad blared in the Reno Gazette Journal, blasting the conservative Democratic-majority in the U.S. Senate for not passing the national Suffrage Amendment earlier that year.

Other states turned to patriotism to get voters to the polls, arguing that voting in the face of the Spanish flu supported American soldiers in World War I. California experienced peak death rates, the Los Angeles Times front page said, declaring, “Every Loyal Californian Will Cast Vote at Election,” just six days before the war’s armistice.

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“No Election Quarantine” headline notes in Stevens Point Journal, November 4, 2018

But as Election Day grew closer, medical worries were placed ahead of political wins in some states. In North Dakota health authorities considered the “unheard of possibility of postponing the general election” due to more than 15,000 influenza cases, according to The Bismarck Tribune.

One Florida headline — “Flu vs. Ballot” — in the Tampa Times warned the virus was nonpartisan. “The candidates nominated in the Democratic primary are worrying very little about the outcome of the election…as the ‘flu’ is no respector of person and Republicans, socialist, independents, etc., have the disease just the same as the Democrats,” the paper wrote. 

Other state officials soon clarified that the election would proceed.

“Because of rumors the state board of health has found it necessary to issue an official denial that it intends to stop tomorrow’s elections under the rule against congregating,” a bulletin in Wisconsin’s Stevens Point Journal noted. “The elections will be held as usual.”

The Marion Star in Ohio, too, promised the election would go on — “Flu Ban or No Flu Ban.” 

Election Day 

“Social distancing” echoes can be seen in instructions that appeared in Fresno’s 1918 voting guidelines, which urged “not congregating at the polls and avoiding needless exposure.”

“Persons are advised to enter the polling places where enclosed, one or two at a time, and to exercise all sanitary precautions,” and included the mandatory face masks in California, The Fresno Morning Republican stated. The San Francisco Chronicle wryly noted that it was “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.”

Monterey Daily Cypress, Nov. 4, 2018.

Reports depicted California polling places as the “quietest within memory” and said they welcomed only the most ardent voters, like Nancy Elworthy, 92, who said while she was almost blind, she still believed voting was “the duty” of every citizen. It is unclear if Elworthy noticed either her fellow voters, described by poll workers as “confessedly suffering from influenza” or that the polling booths lacked spray and disinfectant, according to the Chronicle.

“I must get back to bed at once,” one other voter told the paper upon exiting. “I really should not have come out to vote with this flu!”

New Mexicans were too “afraid of the flu” to vote, and Arizona polls had “light turnout” even with the state’s promise to regularly disinfect polling booths, the El Paso Herald reported. The election was a “rather quiet one” in Minnesota, the Little Falls Herald reported, and in Utah, the Parowan Times diagnosed one cause of low turnout: “Many women who usually vote were unable to go to the polls because of being compelled to remain at home to care for the unwell.”

Some poll sites were unable to open due to “too much influenza,” according The Sacramento Bee, declaring “there were not enough citizens who were well enough.”

Several newsrooms were also forced to close because of quarantine laws. The Long Beach Press announced it was unable to report election results for the first time in its history and respectfully requested that readers not call to ask questions, since the telephone company’s workforce was “weakened” due to sickness.

Voter turnout was lower than in the previous midterm elections. While World War I impacted the number of eligible voters, an analysis by Jason Marisam in the Election Law Journal found the flu had a “significant effect” on turnout.

“If just a fraction of the drop in turnout from 1914 to 1918 was due to the presence of the flu, then the disease was responsible for hundreds of thousands of people not voting,” Marisam noted of the more than 10% decrease in voters.

The flu was used as scapegoat for congressional losses by the Republican National Chairman and prompted legal challenges in some communities, such as when a defeated North Dakota state legislative candidate asserted election officials had unfairly delivered ballots to houses in some districts and not others, according to the Grand Forks Herald.

Today, as American government leaders face another pandemic, historians recognize similar challenges for the federal government system now as it confronted during Spanish flu era.

“I think there is something of not absorbing the historical lessons that contributed to our delays and actions,” Harvard University professor Alex Keyssar, who specializes in election history, told CBS News. “To be clear, it’s not to say that everybody in the [Trump] administration should have been read up on the 1918 flu…but there should be some center of expertise which does absorb those historical lessons to whom policymakers turn.”

Also, states mostly control their own elections, which has resulted in a patchwork across states of both emergency response and political decisions, Keyssar explained. As states stake their hopes on the relatively quick development of antiviral treatments in the next few months before the general election, most states that have yet to vote in primary elections are reluctant to risk increasing the spread of the virus.

At this point, knowledge that COVID-19 is highly contagious and the belief that it has a higher mortality rate than the flu has convinced twelve states to postpone their presidential primaries and five states to expand absentee voting in order to avoid exposing voters unnecessarily to possible infection. 

Unlike political leaders a century ago, most now think it is too dangerous to go to the polls for now.

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Congress flummoxed by firing of top intel watchdog

King, who sits on the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, said officials such as Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell and Atkinson himself — whom Trump fired late Friday night — should be put under oath.

“It should be an open hearing to have members of the administration come forward and provide an explanation,” King, who caucuses with the Democrats, said in a phone interview, calling Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson “terrible on a lot of levels.”

Trump has defended the firing, telling reporters on Saturday during a White House coronavirus task force briefing that the longtime public official was a “total disgrace” for the way he handled a whistleblower complaint that led to the president’s impeachment.

But King cautioned that even a public hearing might not yield many answers because “this was a decision made principally by the president, probably without consulting much of anyone else.”

“We don’t need to know why he did it — he said it. The president yesterday said it!” King quipped.

A spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the panel’s plans. The Senate is scheduled to return to regular session on April 20, but several senators have cast doubt on that timeline given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to comment on Atkinson’s removal.

Meanwhile, Atkinson released a lengthy statement Sunday night about his firing, asserting that Trump removed him simply for doing his job.

“It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General,” Atkinson wrote.

Democrats have condemned the firing as an abuse of power and a brazen act of politically motivated retribution by a president emboldened after the Senate acquitted him in his impeachment trial. Republicans have been tepid in their criticism of the action, but some, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said the firing “demands an explanation,” while others largely deferred to the president’s unorthodox leadership style.

“Obviously those people serve at the pleasure of the president and as is usually the case, it’s not something that we have any control over,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the GOP whip. “The president made it pretty clear why he did. But he has the prerogative. We don’t always have to agree with his actions. As we’ve learned in the past he’s going to do what he’s to do.”

Thune said it was too early to assess whether the firing was unwarranted: “I want to talk to the people who are close to it and get some context on it. I don’t understand it at this point. But that’s a question for another day when I can figure out what went into it.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who presided over a pro forma session of the Senate on Monday morning, also said more information was needed.

“I think we should get more detail. I agree with that,” she said. “It’s such an odd time it’s hard to say how we’re going to get that info — I mean, you know what kind of priority that information is going to have — but I think that’ll all come out.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a top Trump ally, said he was more consumed with reforming the foreign surveillance courts than Atkinson’s firing. But he also made clear it didn’t trouble him, either: “I don’t necessarily have any issues with it.”

“My view is that this is the president’s decision, it’s a decision that’s his to make. It doesn’t give me enormous heartburn,” Hawley said in an interview on Monday. “It’s not the main issue.”

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San Francisco Was the First Major City To Ban Plastic Bags. Now It’s Banning Reusable Bags To Combat Coronavirus. – Reason.com

The world really has turned upside down. In 2007 San Francisco became the first large city in the country to ban single-use plastic bags. Now, as part of its effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, the city is banning the reusable tote bags it’s spent over a decade promoting.

Last week, the San Francisco Department of Health published an update to its guidelines for the city’s already strict shelter-in-place order. These new guidelines include social distancing protocols that so-called “essential” businesses must follow when applicable.

Included in the protocol section on preventing unnecessary contact is a directive for businesses to prohibit customers from bringing their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.

As SFGate notes, the updated guidance does not address the status of the city’s existing plastic bag ordinance, which bans the distribution of non-compostable single-use plastic bags, and requires stores to charge ten cents for each compostable, paper, or reusable bag a customer uses. That fee is set to increase to 25 cents in July 2020.

Both New York and Maine have suspended the implementation of their state-level plastic bag bans because of the novel coronavirus.

John Tierney argued in CityJournal recently that reusable bags have the potential to become contaminated with bacteria and have been known to transmit viruses. Early studies show that COVID-19 can also survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days.

That suggests reusable bags, which are often made of plastic, might create additional risks for grocery store customers and staff. If a person brings a reusable bag from a home where someone is sick, any clerk who handles that bag could end up getting infected. And if that clerk is already sick, a bag that doesn’t immediately get tossed in the trash could end up infecting the next person who comes into contact with it.

However, the CDC had downplayed the risks that people will pick up COVID-19 from surfaces, saying that it is much more likely to get the virus from another person. Two epidemiologists who spoke with Slate about grocery store best practices in the time of coronavirus were also dismissive of the idea that reusable bags created additional risks.

The fact that we’re still in the dark about how best to prevent the spread of coronavirus is actually a good reason to not have bag bans of any kind, reusable or single-use.

Stores that are particularly concerned about the risks of a customer bringing in a contaminated reusable bag should be free to opt for allowing (and providing) only single-use bags. Shoppers who like their reusable bags, or who are concerned about bringing home single-use plastic bags that might have been handled by sick staff, should also have the option of patronizing places that still allow their preferred receptacle.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that some grocery store chains came up with a middle-ground policy of allowing customers to bring their own reusable bags on the condition that they bag items themselves.

It’s fashionable to say that there are no libertarians in a pandemic. Yet preserving freedom of choice, even about the small things like which bag to use at the grocery store, allows people and businesses to react more nimbly to uncertain risks.

That San Francisco has had to oscillate between two totally different prohibitions, meanwhile, highlights the problem of always picking the most restrictive top-down solution for any given problem.

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Wisconsin’s Democratic governor postpones Tuesday’s election, Republicans challenge order

Democratic Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order on Monday postponing Wisconsin’s primary election from Tuesday until June 9, citing health risks from the coronavirus pandemic, but Republicans said they would challenge it in the state Supreme Court.

The late postponement came after the Republican-controlled legislature rejected Evers’ call last week to cancel in-person voting on Tuesday and extend the time to return absentee ballots into late May.

“Absent legislative or court action, I cannot in good conscience stand by and do nothing. The bottom line is that I have an obligation to keep people safe, and that’s why I signed this executive order today,” Evers said in a statement.

Republican legislative leaders said Evers did not have the authority to postpone the election.

“The clerks of this state should stand ready to proceed with the election. The governor’s executive order is clearly an unconstitutional overreach,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement.

Wisconsin residents are under orders to stay at home and public gatherings are banned to limit exposure to the coronavirus. Fears about infection have led to a shortage of poll workers and an explosion in requests for absentee ballots.

Some state officials had warned of potential chaos if the voting went ahead. Concerns about the coronavirus have left nearly 60% of the state’s municipalities with a shortage of poll workers, causing the consolidation of many polling sites, and more than 100 municipalities without staff for even one polling site.

The Wisconsin Army National Guard was set to help at the polls.

Evers had said last week that he did not have the authority to move the election on his own, but his order relies on a state law that says during an emergency the governor can “issue such orders as he or she deems necessary for the security of persons and property.”

Evers had asked for a special session of the legislature over the weekend to make voting in the election, which also will decide thousands of state and local offices, all by mail and extend the time to return ballots. But the legislature did not take up Evers’ plan.

More than a dozen states have delayed or adjusted their primaries in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election to limit the health risks from the coronavirus.

Democrats in Wisconsin have criticized Republicans for trying to force the vote to go forward. Republicans have cited the potential for voter fraud and the short timeline to fill state and local offices that are on the ballot.

Democrats have said Republicans are more interested in dampening turnout in state races, particularly for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that could be instrumental in ruling on future voting-rights cases in the battleground state crucial to November’s presidential election.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and John Whitesides Editing by Chris Reese and Bill Berkrot)

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10 Million US Workers Have Lost Their Jobs. And the System Has No Answers.

The unemployment numbers released by the Department of Labor on Thursday morning are nothing short of cataclysmic. In the last two weeks, nearly ten million workers filed new unemployment claims.

There is no analogue in American history for workers losing jobs at this speed and magnitude. Before last month, the previous record in weekly new unemployment claims was in the recession of 1982, when just short of 700,000 workers filed. In the week beginning March 21, 3.3 million filed. Last week, it was 6.6 million.

The numbers also show that the devastation has not been confined to industries most directly affected by lockdowns and shelter in place orders, like hospitality and retail. Manufacturing employment is contracting sharply, and the situation in the sector is already resembling the depths of the Great Recession. White-collar employment is also feeling the pain, as law firms, real estate, and tech have all announced significant layoffs.

Source: Paul Heideman

The effects of this will be dire. Immediately, workers and their families will lose income, and some will begin confronting the choice between food and rent. As households cut back on expenditures, the effects will ripple outwards, as other firms find their customer base shrinking.

But some of the most damaging effects of unemployment are longer-term. A mountain of academic research has found that unemployment carries consequences well beyond the immediate loss of income. Workers who are laid off are more likely to only find part-time work as a replacement. When they find a new job, their wages might be lower than their old job, or at the very least won’t rise as quickly. Economists call this effect “wage scarring,” and estimate that it lasts for decades. Over a lifetime, a worker who has been laid off will, even after they find a new job, earn roughly 20 percent less than a similar worker who wasn’t laid off.

It doesn’t have to be like this. While an economic contraction as a result of the pandemic was probably inevitable, mass layoffs and the misery that they bring with them are not. As Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman recently pointed out, in Europe, the crisis isn’t taking the form of mass layoffs. Instead, states are paying companies to keep workers on payroll by subsidizing their salaries. This ensures that the workforce is ready to go back to work as soon as it is safe to do so.

Unfortunately, the United States stands out among advanced capitalist countries for possessing a welfare state that is uniquely unsuited to aiding workers in this crisis. The state is institutionally hostile to the kind of payroll replacement policies European states are adopting. With no kind of corporatist infrastructure that gives both labor and capital a place at the table in determining economic policy, the United States has little administrative capacity to enact solutions that both preserve firms institutionally and ensure that workers aren’t completely immiserated.

The welfare state that does exist is manifestly unequal to the challenge confronting it. The country’s largest antipoverty program is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which supplements the incomes of poor workers. However, the EITC is explicitly geared towards rewarding labor-force participation, so its benefits are tied to wages. It’s useless to people who are laid off.

Direct cash assistance, or welfare, has been missing in action since Bill Clinton’s 1996 Welfare Reform bill. Before then, about 70 percent of poor families with children received cash assistance. Today, the number is 22 percent.

Particularly concerning is the fact that the welfare rolls hardly increased during the last Great Recession a decade ago. Despite millions of people being plunged into poverty, welfare rolls hardly budged. In some states, where state governments slashed welfare spending, the rolls actually contracted as poverty grew.

Currently, the United States is relying on its unemployment insurance program to mitigate the effects of job loss. Unemployment benefits were significantly expanded for most workers (thanks in part to Bernie Sanders’s refusal to let the Senate to leave low-wage workers out in the cold) by the last stimulus bill, and eligibility for benefits was expanded as well.

While this will provide much-needed relief for workers whose paychecks stop coming in the next few weeks, it’s not nearly enough. For one thing, the sheer scale of new unemployment has overwhelmed the administrative capacities of unemployment offices. State unemployment websites are crashing, hotlines have all-day wait times, and offices can’t process claims fast enough. Our unemployment system is anemic and punitive at the best of times. Today, it is totally unequipped to punctually distribute the benefits that the state has designated as the main form of support for people caught in the economic maelstrom.

On top of this, because health insurance is linked to employment for most workers, millions of households are going to lose insurance coverage in the midst of a pandemic. Our health care system was already dysfunctional; now it’s on the brink of collapse, and months of lies about how wonderful a private insurance system is are unraveling in terrifyingly real time. Far from the greatest in the world, our system is one that is excluding people in massive numbers at the very moment that the private and public costs of doing so are highest.

American workers are now staring into the abyss. The current recession threatens to utterly dwarf the last in its magnitude. If it does, it will likely bring with it forms of political instability that will make the decade of Occupy Wall Street, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders look idyllic in comparison.

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Trump, McConnell push ahead with judicial nominations amid coronavirus, presidential election

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President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are pushing ahead with an aggressive effort to get more federal judges confirmed amid the global coronavirus pandemic, as they grapple with the possibility that the November elections could wrest away Republican control of the Senate and White House.

Losing the White House or control of the Senate would be a major blow to efforts to install conservative jurists on the federal bench, as the president nominates judicial nominees and the Senate confirms them. McConnell — who takes great pride in confirming Trump’s judicial nominees — has made clear he wants to fill as many vacancies as possible in 2020.

“My motto for the rest of the year is ‘leave no vacancy behind,'” McConnell said at a dinner for the Federalist Society, a group for conservative and libertarian lawyers, at Union Station last November.

The majority leader and the president have had other things on their mind lately, passing in a matter of weeks three coronavirus relief packages with the most recent totaling more than $2.2 trillion worth of economic stimulus and disease-fighting measures. But they still found time on Friday to announce the nomination of Judge Justin Walker, a McConnell ally from Kentucky and former clerk for then-judge Brett Kavanaugh, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

CORONAVIRUS: WHAT TO KNOW

CONSERVATIVE LEADERS PRESS SENATORS TO CONFIRM TRUMP CIRCUIT COURT PICK

“I am proud that President Trump’s search took him outside the Beltway and into the Bluegrass,” McConnell said in a statement on the nominee to the D.C. Circuit, which is widely viewed as a feeder bench to the Supreme Court. “He has chosen a rising Kentucky star, born and raised in Louisville, to refresh the second-most-important federal court in the country.”

Trump’s nomination of Walker, who was widely panned by liberal groups that also opposed his initial nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky — which ended in a party-line confirmation vote — followed the president’s pick earlier in the week of Cory Wilson, a judge on a Mississippi state appeals court, for the Fifth Circuit. McConnell said Wilson had “impressive experience in public service.”

But these two circuit court nominations weren’t the only ones McConnell and Trump have ushered through between more pressing priorities in the past few months.

Minutes after Chief Justice John Roberts gaveled out Trump’s impeachment trial, which had consumed the body for almost three weeks, McConnell filed cloture on the controversial nomination of Judge Andrew Brasher to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. He was confirmed by a 52-43 vote just days later on Feb. 11, right as governments worldwide were beginning to understand the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Andrew Brasher in his official photo as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. (almd.uscourts.gov)
(almd.uscourts.gov)

AFTER IMPEACHMENT ACQUITTAL, SENATE CONFIRMS ANOTHER TRUMO COURT PICK OVER DEM OBJECTIONS

McConnell and Trump have installed 51 circuit judges during Trump’s time in office and 193 judges to Article III courts overall, according to a Heritage Foundation count. The most recent president to have more than 30 circuit court judges installed by March 11 of his fourth year was Bill Clinton, who managed to secure the confirmations of 33 circuit judges by that time.

But four years of uninterrupted GOP control of the Senate and White House could be under threat in November. Republicans seem confident they will be able to hold on to the Senate and maybe even take the House of Representatives. But there are far more vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in the fall than vulnerable Democrats, and Republicans hold a slim 53-seat majority.

Add to that the fact that Trump is underperforming in most head-to-head polls against likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and Republicans have good reason to keep their conveyer belt of lifetime-appointed judges whirring all the way through 2020.

“I have been honored to partner with the President as we work to strengthen the federal judiciary with impressive men and women who understand that the job of a judge is to apply our laws and Constitution as they are actually written,” McConnell said in his Friday statement on Walker. “Lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary are among the Senate’s most serious and impactful responsibilities. I am glad the President continues to send us outstanding nominees whose confirmations will strengthen the rule of law in our country and the future of our Constitution.”

But a possibly fast-approaching deadline for Republicans can also mean a light at the end of the tunnel for Democrats, who have lacked the votes to stop any judicial nominees during the Trump presidency after former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., removed the 60-vote filibuster threshold for lower court nominees during Former President Obama’s time in office. McConnell scrapped it for Supreme Court nominees after Democrats filibustered Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017.

Democrats are now redoubling efforts against Trump’s picks, particularly Walker, who’s nominated for the same circuit court on which Kavanaugh, as well as Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia once sat.

SUPREME COURT POSTPONES APRIL ORAL ARGUMENTS OVER CORONAVIRUS CONCERNS

“The nomination of a Mitch McConnell crony, who has been rated unqualified by his peers, to the second-highest court in the country is beyond suspicious,” said Demand Justice, a progressive group run by former Obama and Hillary Clinton staffer Brian Fallon.

The statement continued: “We need an immediate investigation into whether McConnell manufactured this vacancy by unethically pressuring Judge Thomas Griffith to retire now.”

Walker would replace the retiring Griffith, who is stepping down in September. Griffith is a George W. Bush appointee so Walker’s confirmation would not change the ideological balance of the D.C. Circuit, which has a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. There’s been no evidence to back a claim that McConnell might have “pressured” the federal judge, who is isolated from the political branches of government by his lifetime appointment, to relinquish his post.

On Wilson, Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a liberal group, said the judge “has called the Affordable Care Act ‘freedom-infringing,’ ‘perverse,’ and ‘illegitimate.”

She continued: “We call on the White House and Republican senators to prioritize the safety and health of everyone in this country instead of installing judges who will endanger our collective well-being during such a dangerous and unsettling time.”

Meanwhile, 22 leaders of high-profile conservative organizations signed a letter on Friday urging the Senate to back Walker’s nomination, saying the judge’s “everyday-American upbringing, impeccable credentials, dedication to principled judging, and reputation for collegiality is impressive.”

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Article III Project President Mike Davis, whose group — which boosts Trump judicial nominees — organized the Friday letter, expressed confidence that the Senate would be able to efficiently move forward with the president’s judicial nominations even during the pandemic.

“Judicial nominations have been, and will continue to be, a top priority under Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership. The Senate is fully capable of moving judicial nominations and dealing with the coronavirus,” said Davis, the former chief nominations counsel for former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “This is why the Senate divides up the work among the committees. The Senate can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The nominations for both Wilson and Walker — in keeping with Senate customs and barring anything major and unforeseen — could make their way to the Senate floor as soon as early June.

Fox News’ Bill Mears contributed to this report.