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Dating changed during the pandemic; apps are following suit

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 21:41

FILE - This Tuesday, July 28, 2020, file photo shows the icon for the Tinder dating app on a device in New York. The use of dating apps in the last 18 months of the pandemic has surged around the globe. Tinder reported 2020 as its busiest year. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File) (Patrick Sison/)

LONDON — Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Jennifer Sherlock went out with a few men she met through dating apps. The dates were “weird,” she said, and not just because they were masked, socially distanced and outdoors.

One one occasion, a date remained masked while they were out for a stroll, but soon after invited her back to his place, a move Sherlock saw as reckless. “It was so off putting, and awkward,” she said. “So we wouldn’t be safe outside without mask(s), but we would be safe back at his place maskless?”

She decided she needed a way to filter people, so she began arranging video chats before agreeing to meet anybody in person. Sherlock, 42, a PR consultant who lives in New Jersey, said it’s a practice she’ll continue post-pandemic.

Sherlock isn’t alone in changing the way she used dating apps during the pandemic, prompting many to roll out new features. Despite the social distancing of the past 18 months, the use of dating apps in general has surged as people sought connections amid their isolation.

Tinder reported that 2020 was its busiest year yet; this year, its users have already set two records for usage between January and March. Hinge tripled its revenue from 2019 to 2020, and the company expects it to double from that this year.

In response to changing demands, Tinder announced new tools last month that will allow users to get to know people better online. People will now be able to add videos to their profile and can chat with others even before matching with them.

“Historically consumers were reluctant to connect via video because they didn’t see the need for it,” said Jess Carbino, an online dating expert and sociologist who has worked for Tinder and Bumble. Post-COVID, however, many people expect a higher degree of screening, she said. “Online dating apps like Tinder are leaning into that.”

The dating apps say their research shows video chats are here to stay, even as life starts to return to normal in some parts of the world.

Almost half of Tinder users had a video chat with a match during the pandemic, with 40% of them intending to continue them post-pandemic. Tinder says this is largely driven by Gen Z users in their late teens and early 20s, who now make up more than half of the app’s users. And a majority of Hinge UK users, 69%, also say they’ll continue with virtual dates after the pandemic.

Tinder, alongside other popular apps including Hinge, OkCupid and Bumble, has in Britain and the U.S. partnered with the government to add a badge to profiles indicating that users have been vaccinated. (There’s no verification process, though, so matches could be lying.)

Dating app users are also increasingly looking for deeper connections rather than casual encounters, Carbino said.

That’s what happened to Maria del Mar, 29, an aerospace engineer, who wasn’t expecting to end up in a relationship after she matched with someone on Tinder early in the pandemic last year.

She started chatting with her now-boyfriend through the app in April 2020 during a complete lockdown in Spain, where she lives. Having moved back to her parent’s tiny town of León from Barcelona, del Mar was bored when she joined the app, but was surprised to find many things in common with her current partner.

After weeks of chatting, they finally met for a first date — a socially-distanced hike — after restrictions eased slightly in May 2020. Now the two have moved in together. “If it wasn’t for the app, probably our paths wouldn’t have crossed,” she said.

Fernando Rosales, 32, was a frequent user of Grindr, an app popular with gay men looking for more casual encounters, in pre-pandemic times. He turned to Tinder for social connections when coronavirus restrictions prevented people from meeting others in London, where he lives.

“Grindr is like, ‘I like you, you like me, you’re within 100 meters of me, I’m going to come over,’” said Rosales, who works at the popular British coffee chain Pret.

“Tinder is something more social,” he added,. Sometimes he uses the app just to meet others to play online video games or video chat.

Ocean, 26, a drag artist and photographer in Berlin, turned to the live video feature of a LGBTQ+ app called Taimi to make friends across the world during the pandemic. Having two-to-five minute video chats with strangers from places like the Philippines or parts of the U.S. was “amazing,” she said. Ocean’s given name is Kai Sistemich; she identifies as a woman when in drag.

She said she’ll continue using the feature post-pandemic, especially while she’s doing solo activities like cooking, or getting ready before going out to party.

Sherlock also expects some of her pandemic dating behaviors to carry into the post-pandemic world. She recently asked two men she was texting for Facetime chats before meeting in person, something she would not have done pre-pandemic.

“It’s a crazy dating world out there, so saving time is necessary,” she said.


Idaho lawmaker who named rape accuser says she did nothing wrong

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 20:35

Rep. Priscilla Giddings makes her way into a committee hearing to determine if she violated the Idaho Legislature's ethics rules in Boise, Idaho., on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. An Idaho lawmaker accused of violating ethics rules by publicizing the name of an alleged rape victim in disparaging social media posts and then allegedly misleading lawmakers about her actions, said in an ethics hearing Monday that she did nothing wrong and claimed the allegations against her were politically motivated. (AP Photo/Rebecca Boone) (Rebecca Boone/)

BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho state lawmaker refused to answer questions she deemed “irrelevant” during a hearing Monday to determine whether she violated ethics rules by publicizing in disparaging social media posts the name of a woman who accused another lawmaker of rape.

The lawmaker also argued that the young Statehouse intern who said she was raped wasn’t actually a victim or entitled to privacy under the law.

Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings became the subject of two ethics complaints by about two dozen lawmakers after she publicized the rape accuser’s name, photo and personal details about her life in April by sharing links to an far-right news article on social media and in a newsletter to constituents.

The Legislature’s ethics committee scheduled the public hearing after finding probable cause that Giddings engaged in “conduct unbecoming a representative, which is detrimental to the integrity of the House as a legislative body.”

The lawmaker accused of raping the intern, Republican Aaron von Ehlinger, resigned earlier this year after the ethics committee recommended he be removed from the Statehouse. Von Ehlinger has denied all wrongdoing. The rape allegation is under investigation by police.

Giddings told the ethics committee Monday that shortly after the allegations against von Ehlinger became public in April, she called one of his attorneys to ask if he would release von Ehlinger’s response to the rape accusation, and if he planned on including the accuser’s name.

After the attorney did so, Giddings said she checked with a news reporter to determine if he had received the document, Giddings told the committee.

Then she said she went on Facebook to post a link to a different far-right blog article that included the intern’s photo, name and other personal information — and linked to the same article in a newsletter to constituents.

After the intern’s identity was revealed, she was subjected to a flood of harassment. Advocates for victims of sexual assault said the situation showed why many are afraid to report crimes.

But Giddings, who is running for lieutenant governor, said the complaints about her behavior amounted to little more than “woke cancel culture” and argued the ethics investigation was politically motivated.

She also said sharing the article link was the same as handing someone a newspaper, and was protected under her First Amendment right to free speech.

When Giddings entered the hearing Monday, she was met with applause, shouts of support and a standing ovation by some supporters in the audience — which included some militia members, members of an anti-vaccination group and others with far-right political organizations.

Some wore shirts with messages of support, including “victims for Priscilla,” and “Stand with Priscilla, fighting for our freedom.”

In her opening statement, Giddings said the ethics investigation was an unfair attack by political opponents and that she exercised her constitutionally protected right to free speech by sharing the link that revealed the intern’s identity.

Giddings also said she believed the outcome of the hearing had been pre-determined and left the hearing room for most of the day, declining to cross-examine any of the witnesses who testified against her.

Rep. Brooke Green, a Democrat and one of the bipartisan group of lawmakers that signed onto an ethics compliant, said that the other two dozen lawmakers who also signed the complaint were approached individually and not told who else was signing to ensure that political motivations didn’t play a part.

Green said the complaint was made because the Legislature has an obligation to ensure that sexual assault victims are safe and not revictimized by having their privacy violated. The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted.

Rep. Greg Chaney, a Republican who brought one of the complaints against Giddings, said not all speech is protected under the First Amendment, including speech that wrongly defames someone.

Chaney also said Giddings’ actions amounted to retaliation against an employee or coworker who reports harassment or sex assault and therefore did not qualify as constitutionally protected speech.

Republican Rep. Julie Yamamoto, who also signed one of the complaints, testified that she would have withdrawn her name and forgiven Giddings if Giddings had apologized.

But that never happened, and Yamamoto said she didn’t want to be counted among the lawmakers who are unwilling to hold each other accountable.

“You can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, but you need to be willing to accept the consequences,” she said.

The hearing grew increasingly tense after the committee called Giddings to return as a witness, asking her why she shared the links and whether she felt that the intern — whom the committee called “Jane Doe” — was entitled to any privacy protections under the state’s crime victim laws.

“You’re way out of the park right now because there is no victim, so that doesn’t apply at all,” Giddings said.

Christopher McCurdy, the attorney representing the ethics committee, then asked Giddings, “Do you believe Jane Doe is entitled to dignity during the ethics hearing?”

Giddings declined to answer, calling the question “irrelevant.”

She also said she wasn’t initially aware that the intern’s photo was included in the post she made on her page, and that she only skimmed the article before sharing it.

The link and the photo remained on her page until the afternoon of April 29 and screenshots collected by The Associated Press showed that commenters on that Facebook post and others repeatedly criticized Giddings for “doxing” the accuser. Critical comments appeared to be frequently deleted.

Some of the committee members grew visibly frustrated with Giddings’ combative approach at the hearing, particularly when she refused to answer questions she deemed irrelevant or that she said focused on her beliefs.

“Just be candid with the committee. Tell us ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Republican Rep. Brent Crane said. “Don’t hedge this way and hedge that way and play semantics and games.”

Giddings declined to call any witnesses to testify on her behalf, saying she thought that the committee would have served the subpoenas for her. She said she wasn’t able to reach them all by email.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Tuesday, when committee members will decide whether they will recommend that the full House censure, reprimand or expel Giddings.


Behind the gold medal: the Seward swim moms who supported Lydia Jacoby all the way to the Olympic podium

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 19:21

Sarah Spanos displays signs of support for Olympic swimmer Lydia Jacoby adorning her pickup truck, in Seward. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen) (Mark Thiesssen/)

Look behind any elite athlete and you’ll find an ironclad support system.

In the case of Olympic gold and silver medalist Lydia Jacoby of Seward, you’ll find a dedicated group of families and, specifically, swim moms.

They’re the snack-suppliers, the drivers, the cheering section, the chaperones and often the volunteer race officials clicking stopwatches and looking for a technical mistake that could lead to a swimmer’s disqualification.

And being a swim mom in Seward, where Jacoby grew up, is an especially unique experience.

Meets often take place far away from the town of about 2,700 on the Kenai Peninsula. The closest competition is 90 miles away and many are much farther, which means long drives and sometimes flights and ferries. Sarah Spanos, one of the swim moms, said she has often found herself at the helm of a rented van, swimmers packed into the back rows.

And that’s just getting to the meet. Then the marathon-like event starts, from warm-ups through each heat and relay race. That means Spanos and others have spent countless hours watching Jacoby swim.

“It’s family,” Spanos said. “Being a swim mom, you’re a mom to a whole family of swimmers.”

Now, they aren’t just swim moms. They’re swim moms to an Olympic champion.

“She was mine, you know?” Spanos said. “I know Rich and Leslie are her biological parents but every swim mom from Seward that sat on the bleachers year after year after year, that was their Lydia that was swimming.”

After 17-year-old Jacoby won the 100-meter breaststroke on July 26 at the Tokyo Olympics, Spanos cried for 15 minutes.


Lydia Jacoby of Seward holds up her gold medal after winning the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) (Petr David Josek/)

“All those moms are my moms,” said 18-year-old Kylie Mullaly, one of Jacoby’s teammates. “I’ve gone up to the bleachers after a race and said, ‘Oh I’m hungry,’ and I turn around and there’s five moms giving me carrots and granola bars and whatever they have to make sure that I’m fed and taken care of.”

Jacoby’s mom is a swim mom too. Leslie Jacoby is president of the Seward Tsunami Swim Club and a race official on the pool deck. Her dad, Rich Jacoby, is at every meet.

Nita Hollingsworth won’t say she taught Jacoby to swim, but she did teach her to blow bubbles in the water.

Hollingsworth, 43, grew up swimming in Seward -- she was an inaugural member of the Seward Tsunami Swim Club as an 8-year-old, and these days she teaches pre-school aged children just learning to swim.

“I absolutely love it -- teaching those kids to love the water -- it’s a lot of fun,” said Hollingsworth, whose son is a former teammate of Jacoby’s.

Right before Jacoby’s 100-meter breaststroke final, Hollingsworth and a few other parents at the now-famous Seward watch party stood in the back of the Alaska Railroad terminal, visibly anxious.

“(The) moms were so nervous, because we knew she could do it,” Hollingsworth said.


People line up to enter the Dale R. Lindsey Alaska Railroad terminal in Seward for the July 26 watch party for Seward swimmer Lydia Jacoby. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

It was the swim moms who planned the watch party that produced one of the enduring moments of the Tokyo Olympics. Jennifer Anderson and Stephanie Mullaly first discussed the idea while doing Seward’s First Friday art walk in early July, after Jacoby had made the U.S. Olympic team.

The two have known Jacoby since she was a toddler. Jacoby’s parents were part of a group, along with Mullaly, Anderson and others, known as “co-op families.”

The group shared childcare, Anderson said. They’d take kids out for activities like a hike, sometimes 20 kids with three moms, she said.

First, it was carpooling to library story time, but as the kids got older, it turned into swim lessons and then swim team, she said.

“And then we’d all travel together,” Anderson said. “And we’d all sit in the bleachers together.”

[Seward erupts for joy as hometown swimmer Lydia Jacoby wins Olympic gold medal]

The bond formed over all those years and all those meets was on display during Jacoby’s gold-medal race. A watch-party crowd of 400 turned thunderous and the co-op kids and other kids stomped, shouted and jumped for joy as Jacoby stormed into the lead.

The kids are like a bunch of cousins, Mullaly said. Her daughter agreed.

“It’s amazing,” Kylie Mullaly said. “Because especially in Alaska, you kind of make your own family. And it’s awesome that I have this huge family — and all swimmers do — to take care of us.”

Related:

Lydia Jacoby’s journey to the Olympics started with a breakout performance at age 10. The pandemic helped her train even harder.

Lydia Jacoby: 10 things to know about Alaska’s Olympic gold medal swimmer

Lydia Jacoby: 5 (more) things to know about Alaska’s two-time Olympic medalist

US employers ratchet up the pressure on the unvaccinated

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 18:57

A proof of vaccination sign is posted at a bar in San Francisco on Thursday, July 29, 2021. Until now, many employers had taken a passive approach to their unvaccinated workers, relying outreach and incentives. But that has been shifting, with vaccine mandates gaining momentum. (AP Photo/Haven Daley) (Haven Daley/)

NEW YORK — Employers are losing patience with unvaccinated workers.

For months, most employers relied on information campaigns, bonuses and other incentives to encourage their workforces to get the COVID-19 shot. Now, a growing number are imposing rules to make it more onerous for employees to refuse, from outright mandates to requiring the unvaccinated to undergo regular testing.

Among employers getting tougher are the federal government, the state governments of California and New York, tech giants Google and Facebook, the Walt Disney Co. and the NFL. Some hospitals, universities, restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues have also started requiring vaccines.

But the new measures are unlikely to affect many of the millions of unvaccinated Americans.

Many of the companies that are requiring shots have mostly office workers who are already largely vaccinated and are reluctant to work alongside those who aren’t.

In contrast, major companies that rely on low-income blue-collar workers — food manufacturers, warehouses, supermarkets and other store chains — are shying away from mandates for fear of driving away employees and worsening the labor shortages such businesses are facing.

Tyson Foods, for instance, said about half of its U.S. workforce — 56,000 employees — has received shots after the meat and poultry processor hosted more than 100 vaccination events since February. But the company said it has no plans to impose a mandate to reach the other half.

Walmart and Amazon, the country’s two largest private employers, have also declined to require its hourly workers to get vaccinated, continuing to rely on strategies such as bonuses and onsite access to shots. But in a potentially powerful signal, Walmart said employees at its headquarters will be required to get vaccinated by Oct. 4.

The biggest precedent so far has come from the federal government, the nation’s largest employer. President Joe Biden announced last week that all federal employees and contractors must get vaccinated or put up with weekly testing and lose privileges such as official travel.

The federal government has said it will cover the costs of the weekly tests. As for other employers, insurance may pay for such testing at some workplaces but not others.

Biden’s decision could embolden other employers by signaling they would be on solid legal ground to impose similar rules, said Brian Kropp, chief of research at consulting firm Gartner’s human resources practice.

But Kropp said some companies face complicated considerations that go beyond legalities, including deep resistance to vaccines in many states where they operate.

Retailers like Walmart might have a hard time justifying vaccine requirements for their workers while allowing shoppers to remain unvaccinated, Kropp added. Stores have mostly avoided vaccine requirements for customers for fear of alienating them and because of the difficulty in trying to verify their status.

In surveys by Gartner, fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated.

But a shift is building amid frustration over plateauing vaccination rates and alarm over the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

On Monday, the U.S. finally reached Biden’s goal of dispensing at least one shot to 70% of American adults — but a month late and amid a fierce surge that is driving hospital caseloads in some places to their highest levels since the outbreak began. The president had hoped to reach his target by the Fourth of July.

The Union Square Hospitality Group, a group of New York City restaurants and bars founded by Danny Meyer, is now requiring employees and customers to be vaccinated by Sept. 7.

The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, a group of about 300 bars, made a similar decision following a meeting where “the thing that stood out was anger and frustration” toward vaccine holdouts, said founder Ben Bleiman.

While some companies fear vaccine mandates will drive workers away, the pandemic itself is also causing absenteeism. Bleiman said he recently had to close his bar for a night after his bartender, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive and a replacement couldn’t be found.

Some employers are concluding that requiring vaccines is simpler than trying to come up with different rules on masks and social distancing for the small number of unvaccinated employees.

BlackRock, the global investment manager, is allowing only vaccinated workers into its U.S. offices for now and said people will be free to go maskless, as local health guidelines allow, and sit next to each other and congregate without restrictions. The firm said 85% of its U.S. employees are vaccinated or in the process of getting shots.

Matthew Putman, CEO of New York-based high-tech manufacturing hub Nanotronics, said he agonized over his decision to impose a vaccine mandate on his more than 100 employees. As it turned out, nearly all of them were already vaccinated, though he dreads the prospect of having to fire any holdouts.

“I hate the thought. But if it has to happen it has to happen,” Putman said. “I lost a ton of sleep over this but not as much sleep as I’ve lost over the fear of infection.”

Other mandates could provide a clearer test of the potential for employee backlash.

Hospitals and nursing home chains, for instance, are increasingly requiring the vaccine. So far, such mandates have survived legal challenges. More than 150 employees at a Houston hospital system who refused to get the COVID-19 shot were fired or resigned after a judge dismissed an employee lawsuit over the requirement.

Atria Senior Living, which operates more than 200 senior living communities across the country, was among the first to mandate vaccines for its staff in January.

It worked. Nearly 99% of Atria’s 10,000 employees are vaccinated, and only a tiny fraction quit over the requirement, said CEO and Chairman John Moore.

“Our residents deserve to live in a vaccinated environment. Our staff deserves to work in a vaccinated environment,” Moore said.

_____

Associated Press Business Writers Anne D’Innocenzio and Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story.


Anchorage Health Department director’s confirmation vote expedited as Assembly raises questions over pandemic-related comments

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 18:54

David Morgan speaks on his credentials to members of the press during a press conference held by Mayor-elect Dave Bronson at his office in Anchorage on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN) (Emily Mesner/)

As the coronavirus pandemic again surges in Anchorage, the confirmation vote for Mayor Dave Bronson’s health department director appointee, David Morgan, has been expedited over worries about his qualifications and recent comments he has made about the pandemic. It has been moved from Aug. 24 to Aug. 10, Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.

“Everyone who comes before us will receive a fair hearing,” Constant said. “It takes six affirmative votes to be confirmed. And I don’t know if those votes are there.”

Some Assembly members had requested it be expedited over their concerns with recent statements Morgan has made about the pandemic in news interviews and social media posts, he said.

A city health department spokeswoman said Morgan was not available for an interview. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said that Assembly members’ questions will be answered on Tuesday during a confirmation hearing.

Some Assembly members said they are concerned about a comment Morgan made during an interview with Alaska’s News Source last week, in which he avoided a question about whether the pandemic is ongoing.

“I really can’t answer that,” he said. “I think it’s a, it’s a definitional — it’s a personal view kind of thing. I would not, we are not in a state of emergency, and that’s what I go by for. Pandemic is an adjective that describes a situation.”

He later told Alaska’s News Source that he was speaking to the concept of an emergency declaration, and feels that if a person is unvaccinated, they are in a pandemic.

Morgan has said that he is vaccinated himself. Bronson, in an interview last week, said he was not vaccinated, and also reiterated that he will not require masks in the city or implement COVID-19 precautions like capacity restrictions. Bronson made criticizing previous mayors’ pandemic restrictions, and the Assembly’s support for them, a key part of his campaign.

The Anchorage Health Department director oversees a staff of about 130 and a $14.7 million budget. It is largely responsible for the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, overseeing vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing.

According to Morgan’s resume, he has more than 30 years of health care management experience, including working for Southcentral Foundation and Providence hospital.

“Solidifying leadership within the health department during a time when we’re seeing an increase in COVID infections is critical,” Assembly member Meg Zaletel said.

During a previous interview with the Daily News, Morgan compared the choice to wear a mask to the choice to wear a suit and tie to work.

“...some individuals wear masks and some don’t. It’s sort of like some people wear a tie like I do, and a suit, at work in the health department, and some people don’t. We don’t push that. We want people to be comfortable and feel safe,” Morgan said.

Zaletel said for her, the comment draws questions.

“For a lot of our children, who are under age 12, it is not a wardrobe choice. It is a health and safety measure, it is something that keeps them from getting sick, and so I feel like that was rather cavalier attitude and didn’t really think about those who haven’t been eligible to get vaccinated,” Zaletel said. “So I have a lot of questions. A lot of concerns that have led to a lot of questions I’m hoping can get answered at the confirmation hearing.”

Constant said that Morgan’s politically charged posts about the pandemic on social media that minimized its seriousness, first reported by Alaska Public Media, have also drawn attention. The account has since been taken down. Morgan told Alaska Public Media that he thought some of the posts he shared were funny, while others were “just plain dumb.”

Constant said members of the public have emailed Assembly members with concerns about Morgan as health department director.

Assembly members also said they were concerned about reports circulating on social media on Morgan’s work performance at previous jobs. One person on social media detailed an experience they had working with Morgan at a local nonprofit, questioning his competency. The Daily News has not been able to confirm those reports.

Many of the issues are likely to be discussed on Tuesday, during a confirmation hearing for Morgan before the vote next week, Constant said.

“I am certain there will be a lot of questions about the pandemic, his philosophy, his qualifications, choices, his experience, why there are members of the public saying such things about him — are they true — all that is on the table,” Constant said.

Still, some Assembly members say the are likely to support Morgan.

Member Crystal Kennedy said that the mayor should be able to choose who has leadership roles in his administration. Despite concerns with appointees from previous administrations, Kennedy voted to approve them all, she said.

“I‘m sticking with the same kind of principle, and that is that the mayor gets to choose who the mayor thinks can best run their departments,” Kennedy said.

Bronson last week also announced the appointment of Dr. Michael Savitt, who will serve as the health department’s chief medical officer, taking over the duties of epidemiologist Janet Johnston, who resigned last week.

Zaletel said she was encouraged to hear Savitt during a news conference last week promoting mask wearing for unvaccinated individuals and vaccinations as a safe and effective tool against the virus.

Others have raised concerns about Savitt’s online comments on a local conservative website before he was appointed. Those comments have criticized Assembly members over pandemic-related shutdowns and mask mandates, and questioned the effectiveness of masks.

In one post, Savitt said that masks “do not protect anyone from this or any virus.”

In response to a question about the post, Savitt said via a health department spokeswoman, “CDC guidance and recommendations on masking keep changing. We are following CDC guidance.”

The number of unaccompanied children stopped at the US-Mexico border likely hit a record-high in July

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 17:06

In this Thursday, June 10, 2021, file photo, a pair of migrant families from Brazil pass through a gap in the border wall to reach the United States after crossing from Mexico to Yuma, Ariz., to seek asylum. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia, File) (Eugene Garcia/)

SAN DIEGO — The number of children traveling alone who were picked up at the Mexican border by U.S. immigration authorities likely hit an all-time high in July, and the number of people who came in families likely reached its second-highest total on record, a U.S. official said Monday, citing preliminary government figures.

The sharp increases from June were striking because crossings usually slow during stifling — and sometimes fatal — summer heat.

U.S. authorities likely picked up more than 19,000 unaccompanied children in July, exceeding the previous high of 18,877 in March, according to David Shahoulian, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security. The June total was 15,253.

The number of people encountered in families during July is expected at about 80,000, Shahoulian said. That’s shy of the all-time high of 88,857 in May 2019 but up from 55,805 in June.

Overall, U.S. authorities stopped migrants about 210,000 times at the border in July, up from 188,829 in June and the highest in more than 20 years. But the numbers aren’t directly comparable because many cross repeatedly under a pandemic-related ban that expels people from the country immediately without giving them a chance to seek asylum but carries no legal consequences.

The activity was overwhelmingly concentrated in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley sectors in south Texas, accounting for more than seven of 10 people who came in families.

In the Rio Grande Valley sector, the “epicenter of the current surge,” agents stopped migrants about 78,000 times in July, Shahoulian said, up from 59,380 in June and 51,149 in May.

The government disclosures came in a court filing hours after immigrant advocacy groups resumed a legal battle to end the government’s authority to expel families at the border on grounds it prevents the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention renewed those emergency powers, known as Title 42 and named for a 1944 public health law. The Homeland Security Department said it would continue to enforce the ban on asylum for single adults and families despite growing pressure from pro-immigration groups that it isn’t justified on public health grounds. Unaccompanied children are exempt.

“Title 42 is not an immigration authority, but a public health authority, and its continued use is dictated by CDC and governed by the CDC’s analysis of public health factors,” the department said in a statement.

The final count for July border arrests isn’t expected for several days, but preliminary numbers are usually pretty close. Over the first 29 days of July, authorities encountered a daily average of 6,779 people, including 616 unaccompanied children and 2,583 who came in families, Shahoulian said.

The number of people stopped in families is expected to hit an all-time during for the 2021 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, Shaoulian said, adding it will likely be higher if courts order that the pandemic-related powers be lifted.

The rising numbers have strained holding facilities, Shahoulian said. The Border Patrol had 17,778 people in custody on Sunday, despite a “COVID-19 adjusted capacity” of 4,706. The Rio Grande Valley sector was holding 10,002 of them.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups said Monday that they were ending settlement talks with the Biden administration over their demand to lift the pandemic-related ban on families seeking asylum.

The impasse resumes a legal battle before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Biden administration has abandoned its promise of fair and humane treatment for families seeking safety, leaving us no choice but to resume litigation,” said Neela Chakravartula, managing attorney for the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.

Since late March, the ACLU has been working with advocates to choose particularly vulnerable migrants stuck in Mexico for the U.S. government to allow in to seek asylum. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said the exemptions will continue for another week.

“Seven months of waiting for the Biden administration to end Title 42 is more than enough,” Gelernt said.

The breakdown reflects growing tensions between advocates and the administration over use of expulsions and the government’s decision last week to resume fast-track deportation flights for families to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Last week, the International Rescue Committee and HIAS also said they were ending efforts to help the administration choose asylum-seekers to exempt from the pandemic-related ban. The asylum advocacy groups had been working on a parallel track with the ACLU to identify particularly vulnerable migrants stuck in Mexico.

The CDC said Monday that the ban would remain until its director “determines that the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States from covered noncitizens has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health.”

Climate change is endangering sacred land. For these Native women, it threatens ‘everything we are.’

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 16:31

Morning Star Gali at Vista Point Park in Napa, Calif., in July. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Marlena Sloss

Since time immemorial - before the European colonization of what is now known as the United States - tribes of the Pit River Nation have made annual pilgrimages to Medicine Lake in Northern California. The Pit River creation story says that the Creator and his son bathed themselves in the lake after making the Earth. Each year in late July, Pit River tribes return to the sacred region for healing and ceremonial practice. But two byproducts of climate change prevented them from doing so this year: wildfire and drought.

Morning Star Gali, a member of the Ajumawi Band of the Pit River Tribe, said that the fires in the surrounding areas - including the Dixie, Fly, Lava and Beckwourth Complex, which together have burned more than 330,000 acres - have directly affected her tribal relatives and their sacred sites. This July, driving up to Medicine Lake, Gali noticed the dry conditions that precipitate dangerous and fast-spreading wildfires.

Once Gali and her family reached the highlands, she saw the lake’s low water level, which reflected California’s ongoing drought crisis - one that could be the worst in more than 1,000 years. The lake’s low water level meant that Gali wasn’t able to participate in her traditional ceremony of swimming as far out into the lake as possible and taking a full gulp of water. Gali said that the water now tastes like oil, probably from tourists’ motor boats. Between the wildfire smoke, residual motor boat oil and dangerously low water levels, “all of these are contributing factors - in terms of how challenging it is, when we talk about responsibility for land, and repatriation of land, and those traditional practices - those are all cultural barriers to those practices,” Gali said.

Wildfires in Western states have razed structures, displaced residents and altered air quality - and fundamentally changed the relationship between Native women and the land they have historically stewarded. Native and Indigenous women under evacuation orders or who face the potential of a mandate to leave their homes say they are losing access to sacred spaces for the near and long term. For them, the land is integral to their cultural practices.

“Since we’re place-based peoples . . . our homeland is really where we’re tied to [and] where we’re rooted,” said Samantha Chisholm Hatfield, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the tribal liaison and research associate at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. “We don’t just up and find another synagogue or another temple to worship at; our worship is here, in place, so ceremonies can’t exactly be transferred in the same way.”

She continued: “All of those wildfire seasons and that climate change impact affects everything we do and everything we are. . . . The environment makes up part of our identity.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 85 large fires have burned more than 1.6 million acres of land across 13 states this year, with only four of those fires contained. Experts say that the fires will continue to grow and spread, and with many months more of fire season to go, the wildfires have become a significant marker of climate change’s impacts.

This month, tribal nations of the Colville Reservation in Washington and Klamath tribes in Oregon were forced to evacuate their traditional territories.

“The tie to my land is really a strong one and I can’t imagine being forced off,” said Chisholm Hatfield, who was not forced to evacuate where she lives near Salem, Ore. “But at the same time, we were only a few miles from the edge of last year’s fire. I had suitcases that were ready to go, things like my regalia [were] packed and old family pictures, the things that were important. That will become a more frequent reality, I guess. It was very disturbing.”

Many Native peoples have for centuries been fighting to preserve their lands. Throughout the colonization of the Western United States, federal and state practices have sought to relocate and terminate Native peoples, severing their relationship with the land. One of the most prominent examples in Northern California was the Gold Rush in the 1850s: As farmers, ranchers and those chasing the promise of the discovery of gold settled more of California’s land, U.S. legal systems stripped Native tribes of access to their own land.

Now, climate change threatens to push Native peoples further from such places. In a report on tribal adaptation to climate change, the Tribes & Climate Change Program (established by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals out of Northern Arizona University) wrote that “climate change has led to shifts in habitable ranges for a variety of animal and plant species on which tribes rely for subsistence, as well as medicinal and cultural applications.” Tribes’ built infrastructure, too, is at risk because of extreme weather, the report notes. In the past, tribal nations could relocate in response to changes in climate, but ongoing colonization “through treaties and other means, shrunk to a loose patchwork of scattered reservation boundaries that now represent a fraction of those aboriginal lands, making relocation a difficult or entirely infeasible adaptation strategy.”

For many Native and Indigenous women, this is a cruel reality of the federal government’s extractive relationship with the land. And even as they navigate the impact of forced displacement from traditional territories and culturally significant land, state governments are turning to the traditional knowledge of some tribal nations’ burning practices to mitigate wildfires. Indigenous science and knowledge is the basis of the field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), a specialization that Chisholm Hatfield said is often either politicized or disregarded and rarely offered the same respect as Westernized, non-Native science.

“That traditional fire use is not something that’s new,” Chisholm Hatfield said. “Here in the west side of Oregon, we would burn down the valley. My father still talks about remembering setting fires and having to leave . . . but knowing how to use fire, knowing how that cleans the land and makes everything new again and sparks that renewal process is really vital.”

Gali added: “We know that when we as Indigenous peoples are not allowed to properly steward the land, when we’re not allowed to traditionally burn, when we’re not allowed to maintain our traditional practices, that this is the result.”

In the West, where wildfire is inextricably tied to drought, Gali said that she’s been preparing for a time when she won’t be able to practice the annual Medicine Lake ceremony. “I recognize that I need to be able to bring my children there right now while I can because . . . there may not even be water within the next 20 to 25 years within the lake if we are going to continue at the rate that we are,” Gali said.

For Gali, once access to Medicine Lake is gone, it’s gone forever: “There isn’t an alternative for us. There’s not another place like that within our traditional territories for us to go to. . . . So what does that look like for the continuity of our people?”

- - -

This story first appeared in The Washington Post’s The Lily publication.

Alaska reports 751 cases of COVID-19 over the weekend as statewide surge continues

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 15:17

Alaska reported 751 COVID-19 cases over three days as a statewide surge driven by the highly infectious delta variant continued over the weekend.

The newly reported cases followed a trend of higher cases and hospitalizations that began in July. By last week, the state was averaging over 200 new cases per day, and coronavirus-related hospitalizations had reached levels not seen since winter.

The number of Alaskans hospitalized with COVID-19 stayed steady over the weekend. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services dashboard, by Monday, there were 98 people hospitalized with the virus, including 18 on ventilators — down slightly from 100 total hospitalizations on Friday.

During the state’s worst peak last winter, the number of virus-related hospitalizations hovered between 150 and 160.

Hospital administrators said last week that the recent hospitalizations have involved patients who are on average younger and sicker than seen previously, and that the vast majority of hospitalizations are of people who are unvaccinated.

In total, 382 Alaskans and seven nonresidents have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the state last spring.

By Monday, all regions of the state remained at a high alert level, shown as red on maps. The state classifies high alert as a two-week average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 people. It suggests widespread community transmission, with many undetected cases and frequent outbreaks.

The state’s test positivity rate continued to rise by Monday, too. Of all the tests conducted over the past week, 6.01% were positive. Epidemiologists have said a positivity rate over 5% is a cause for concern, because it points to higher transmission and not enough virus detection.

A geographic breakdown of the newly reported cases wasn’t immediately available.

As case counts climb, a growing number of health officials, communities and other institutions are again asking Alaskans to wear masks.

The state health department said last week that even fully vaccinated Alaskans in communities with high COVID-19 transmission should consider masking up again in public, indoor spaces. That recommendation was in line with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

In Anchorage, the school district said it will also recommend that the school board approve requiring universal masking indoors for fall to limit spread of the virus. The Anchorage School Board is scheduled to review the superintendent’s plan during its next school board meeting Tuesday.

The Southeast Alaska communities of Sitka and Juneau have enacted mask mandates in response to federal guidance and increases in case counts. But in Anchorage, Mayor Dave Bronson said last week he had no plans to mandate masking or enact other restrictions.

The University of Alaska said over the weekend that beginning Monday, it would begin requiring face masks indoors on all of its campuses in communities where risk level is classified as “high” or “substantial” as defined by CDC guidelines — “except when you are in a private residence or alone in a private office with the door shut,” according to a statement signed by the university’s interim president, Pat Pitney. Currently, that includes nearly all communities in Alaska.

Health officials continue to encourage Alaskans to get vaccinated, calling the vaccine the best tool the state has to address rising cases and hospitalizations caused by the virus. By Monday, 48% of all Alaskans had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 44% of the population was considered fully vaccinated.

Beginning Monday, the state said it would resume updating its coronavirus dashboard every weekday.

A month late, the US hits Biden’s 70% vaccination rate goal as the COVID-19 delta variant surges

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 15:05

In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo, Juan Avellan, center, and others wear masks while working out in an indoor class at a Hit Fit SF gym amid the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. (AP File Photo/Jeff Chiu) (Jeff Chiu/)

The U.S. on Monday finally reached President Joe Biden’s goal of getting at least one COVID-19 shot into 70% of American adults — a month late and amid a fierce surge by the delta variant that is swamping hospitals and leading to new mask rules and mandatory vaccinations around the country.

In a major retreat in the Deep South, Louisiana ordered nearly everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks again in all indoor public settings, including schools and colleges And other cities and states likewise moved to reinstate precautions to counter a crisis blamed on the fast-spreading variant and stubborn resistance to getting the vaccine.

“As quickly as we can discharge them they’re coming in and they’re coming in very sick. We started seeing entire families come down,” lamented Dr. Sergio Segarra, chief medical officer of Baptist Hospital Miami. The Florida medical-center chain reported an increase of over 140% in the past two weeks in the number of people now hospitalized with the virus.

Biden had set a vaccination goal of 70% by the Fourth of July. That figure was the low end of initial government estimates for what would be necessary to achieve herd immunity in the U.S. But that has been rendered insufficient by the highly contagious delta variant, which has enabled the virus to come storming back.

There was was no celebration at the White House on Monday, nor a setting of a new target, as the administration instead struggles to overcome skepticism and outright hostility to the vaccine, especially in the South and other rural and conservative areas.

The U.S. still has not hit the administration’s other goal of fully vaccinating 165 million American adults by July 4. It is about 8.5 million short.

New cases per day in the U.S. have increased sixfold over the past month to an average of nearly 80,000, a level not seen since mid-February. And deaths per day have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 259 to 360.

Those are still well below the 3,400 deaths and a quarter-million cases per day seen during the worst of the outbreak, in January. But some places around the country are watching caseloads reach their highest levels since the pandemic began. And nearly all deaths and serious illnesses now are in unvaccinated people.

The surge has led states and cities across the U.S. to beat a retreat, just weeks after it looked as if the country was going to see a close-to-normal summer.

Health officials in San Francisco and six other Bay Area counties announced Monday they are reinstating a requirement that everyone — vaccinated or not — wear masks in public indoor spaces.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said New York City airport and transit workers will have to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. He stopped short of mandating either masks or inoculations for the general public, saying he lacks legal authority to do so.

Denver’s mayor said the city will require police officers, firefighters and certain other municipal employees to get vaccinated, along with workers at schools, nursing homes, hospitals and jails.

Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will require masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. New Jersey said workers at state-run nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and other such institutions must get the shot or face regular testing.

North Carolina’s governor ordered state employees in the agencies under his control to cover up indoors if they are not fully vaccinated.

And McDonald’s said it will require employees and customers to resume wearing masks inside some U.S. restaurants regardless of vaccination status in areas with high or substantial coronavirus transmission. The company didn’t say how many restaurants would be affected by the new mask mandate.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a nationwide vaccination requirement “is not on the table,” but noted that employers have the right to take such a step.

The U.S. Senate saw its first disclosed breakthrough case of the virus, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying he has mild symptoms.

In Florida, it took two months last summer for the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 to jump from 2,000 to 10,000. It took only 27 days this summer for Florida hospitals to see that same increase, said Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew.

She noted also that this time, 96% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and they are far younger, many of them in their 20s and 30s.

Amid the surge, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down on his anti-mask, anti-lockdown stance, warning in a fundraising email over the weekend: “They’re coming for your freedom again.”

While setting a national vaccination goal may have been useful for trying to drum up enthusiasm for the shots, 70% of Americans getting one shot was never going to be enough to prevent surges among unvaccinated groups. And when he announced the goal, Biden acknowledged it was just a first step.

It’s the level of vaccinations in a community — not a broad national average — that can slow an outbreak or allow it to flourish.

Vaccination rates in some Southern states are far lower than they are New England. Vermont has fully inoculated nearly 78% of its adult population. Alabama has just cracked 43%.

___

Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

Plane crashes during takeoff in Katmai National Park

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 14:59

Four people aboard a plane that crashed in Katmai National Park and Preserve were taken to Anchorage for medical attention Saturday, park officials said in a release Monday.

The plane, a Cessna 206 on floats, crashed when it was taking off from an unnamed pond roughly 1 mile south of Kukalek Lake, which is in the preserve area of the Katmai, according to the park.

The plane struck the bank of the pond during takeoff, according to National Transportation Safety Board Alaska chief Clint Johnson.

One person sustained a minor injury, Johnson said, though he could not specify the nature of the injury.

“We’re really not sure exactly what the purpose of the flight was. Those details will be coming out after we have a chance to talk to the operator at length,” Johnson said.

The plane was operated by Branch River Air, park officials wrote.

A representative from Branch River Air reached by phone said that the investigation was ongoing and declined to comment further.

Branch River Air’s website says it is a float plane landing service and offers access to various remote parts of Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula.

The Air National guard provided transport of the four people aboard the plane to Anchorage for medical attention.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.


Documentation that makes a solid case (and doesn’t backfire on your company)

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 14:27

As an expert witness (qualified in court in management best practices, HR, and workplace issues), I’m often handed documentation by attorneys or employers who ask, “What do you think? Will it convince a regulatory agency or jury this employee needed to be fired?”

My most frequent answer: “this documentation doesn’t make the case.” Here’s why.

It doesn’t convince

Many supervisors confuse their opinions with facts. Their documentation consists of statements such as “he didn’t show initiative,” “she demonstrates a poor attitude,” “he doesn’t play with others.” While those statements provide the supervisor’s view, they fail to convince.

Well-written documentation provides the facts that will lead a third-party to reach the conclusion the supervisor holds. For example, “When Tish came to the staff meeting 45 minutes late, she folded her arms across her chest and closed her eyes. When asked for her thoughts about the topic under discussion, she asked, ‘How the f--- should I know?’ When you read that set of facts, does it paint a picture of Tish stronger than ‘Tish has a bad attitude’”?

It’s overdone

Fairness matters. Well-done documentation demonstrates fairness by providing specifics concerning what the employee does well, along with the areas in which the employee needs to improve. Overdone documentation that portrays an employee as worthless is as hard to swallow as an overdone steak. No employee is all bad, particularly not one who’s worked for an employer for more than a year.

A third-party reviewing documentation can also tell when a supervisor writes a year’s worth of documentation in one sitting to make an “after the fact” case for why an employee was or should be fired. Even when a supervisor uses different pen inks and handwriting, the documentation reads phony.

When one of my client’s supervisors lets me know, “this employee needs to fired but I haven’t done the necessary documentation,” I suggest that the supervisor preface the documentation with, “On this day, I reflect on the following situations that have occurred during the past four months.” The supervisor can then include the details without appearing dishonest.

It focuses on perceived causes rather than actual performance problems

Supervisors occasionally write, “You don’t care,” “your performance slid after your divorce and appeared to result from a lack of focus” or “you didn’t try.” Not only don’t these statements provide any facts, but employees perceive labels and personal statements as attacks. Not only do employees argue with labels, but attacked employees attack back.

They descend to the level of petty

When many problems riddle an employee’s performance, effective disciplinary or performance review documentation focuses on significant issues. When supervisors document every small problem, it can seem as if they’re “out to get” the employee.

When a regulatory agent or a plaintiff attorney in a deposition challenges the supervisor who wrote about small problems, the supervisors look petty. Worse, the employee can often provide proof that other employees had these same small problems but received no discipline.

A supervisor can always make it clear that more examples exist by writing, “the following three examples demonstrate the many team interactions that violated our code of conduct.”

Hedging

Occasionally supervisors make hedging statements such statements such as “it would appear you didn’t understand the protocol.” These uncertain statements make it appear that the supervisor lacks facts. Instead of making allegations, supervisors need to drill down to what leads them to draw that conclusion, such as “when you did ‘x’, you violated the protocol.”

Backfires

Supervisors need to be careful not to write documentation that creates liability for their organization. For example, if they label an employee’s offensive behavior as sexual harassment, the harasser’s victim may use that documentation to make a case against the organization. Instead, the supervisor can write “your behavior was unacceptable and inconsistent with our harassment policy.”

If a supervisor in a medical clinic or an architectural or engineering firm writes that the employee’s work was “substandard,” this description could backfire if the employer later becomes involved in a malpractice or other lawsuit, with a plaintiff attorney noting, “This employer’s own supervisor agreed the company’s work fell below standard.”

Documentation that makes the case

Effective documentation outlines what the employer expects from the employee and provides facts that show the employee failed to meet that standard. It makes clear what the employer expects from the employee going forward and the consequences should the employee not meet that expectation. How does your documentation measure up?

Lynne Curry’s new book “Managing for Accountability: A Business Leader’s Toolbox” (Business Experts Press) provides a roadmap detailing how to: choose exactly the right employee; set expectations for accountability as part of their company culture; inspire employees to “own” their jobs; effectively address problem behaviors that get in the way of maximum performance; retain their top talent; and create accountability in members of Gen X, Y, and Z. Each chapter provides useful, practical, field-tested strategies and solutions that can be immediately implemented.

Readers will find real-life stories and the checklists and tools immediately actionable and will walk away knowing exactly how to inspire employees, how to maintain employee commitment at a high level, and how to create an accountability culture in their organization. Available now at businessexpertpress.com/books and on Amazon.







Man charged in deadly Eagle River apartment fire told investigators he did it ‘to get him a new home’

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 12:25

Anchorage police and firefighters responded to an apartment fire on Saturday, July 31, 2021 in Eagle River. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

The 29-year-old man accused of starting a fire at an Eagle River apartment complex that killed a married couple told investigators he lit the blaze for attention and to get a new home but didn’t think it would get out of control.

That’s according to charging documents filed in Anchorage Superior Court, where charges were filed against Christopher Ricker including first- and second-degree murder, first-degree arson and first-degree assault. Ricker was arraigned Sunday.

The fire killed Alan Borowski, 68, and 58-year-old Linda Borowski, a married couple whose children lived in a nearby apartment in the complex on Meadow Creek Drive.

An adult and child also suffered injuries after they jumped out a second-story window to escape the fire.

The fire displaced 16 families, according to community volunteers soliciting donations for tenants.

Ricker rented an apartment on the second floor near the Borowskis, according to an affidavit filed with charging documents by Detective Jeffrey Elbie.

Multiple 911 calls reporting the fire started just after 2 a.m. Saturday, the affidavit says. One tenant said she smelled smoke, heard a crackling noise, and opened her door to the the staircase engulfed in flames.

She and a juvenile in the apartment “were forced to jump from the second story living room window,” Elbie wrote. The adult suffered a broken wrist, cuts and bruises. The juvenile sprained their wrist.

Tenants yelled and knocked on doors to alert each other about the fire, the affidavit says. Everyone in the complex was able to get out of their apartments except for the Borowskis. Their family members, who lived in apartment #208, said they last saw the couple around 5 p.m. Friday going into their apartment, #204. Ricker was renting #206.

Surveillance video reviewed by investigators showed someone outside the complex. The person “appears to attempt to start a fire multiple times” between apartments #104 and #105, Elbie wrote. About 30 seconds after the fire started, the light in #206 was switched off.


Anchorage police and firefighters responded to an apartment fire on Saturday. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Ricker called 911 at 2:11 a.m. to report the fire had him trapped, according to the affidavit. He was reported evacuated within about 10 minutes.

Police found Ricker at his parents’ home on LeDoux Lane in Eagle River, the document says. He was staying in a pop-up trailer in the driveway.

Ricker was out on probation for a municipal domestic violence case at the time of the fire, according to the affidavit. Prior convictions dating back to 2009 include DUI, assault, shoplifting, trespass and theft.

A magistrate issued a $500,000 warrant for his arrest.

During a subsequent police interview, Ricker admitted he set a trash bag on fire outside on a lower porch, Elbie wrote. He “said he was just messing around, but he did it for attention. (Ricker) thought by lighting the fire and damaging the complex that it would get him a new home, in which he wanted to remodel.”

He told detectives “he did not know the whole place would get ‘lit up,’” Elbie continued. He also mentioned he wanted to get into trouble.

The complex includes 20 units, most of them rented, court documents show. The fire rendered at least half the building uninhabitable due to damage from fire, smoke or water.

On Monday, a crew from TCM Restoration boarded up windows. A few residents retrieved belongings.

Noah Cunningham and Clare Herrick lost almost everything but managed to grab their three cats before fleeing their second-floor apartment.

Cunningham said at 2 a.m. Saturday Herrick was sleeping and he was “enjoying a bit of bourbon and playing my Play Station” when he heard the worst scream he’s ever heard. He opened the door. The entire ceiling was on fire.

He ran back into the apartment and yelled to wake Herrick. She called 911 right away, from inside, Herrick said. “I just yelled at them ‘Our apartment’s on fire! This is our address.”

It was 2:11 a.m.

“It took two, three minutes to be from not on fire to our ceiling on fire and us running down the stairs to get our cats out,” Cunningham said.

John Lerch stood outside the complex Monday morning after bringing out some possessions including photographs of his sons.

Lerch said his son woke him around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and saved his life. They got out a window and started helping others. Then they watched the fire burn. The next morning, Lerch said, he went shopping for pants in his bathrobe.

“The last couple days have been pretty remarkable trying to come to grips with the tragedy of the people above me died and everyone who lost a home and trying to find meaning with it all,” he said. “And absolutely overwhelmed with the love and support from this Eagle River community.”

People in Eagle River, including the Eagle River Lions Club, mounted a donations drive over the weekend to help displaced families.

By Monday morning, there were enough donations — cribs, clothing, furniture, food — to fill two storage units, according to Jilene Galle, a community member helping coordinate the drive.

Galle created a Facebook group called “Meadow Creek - Brookside Apartments - Eagle River, AK” on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday, it had 500 members. That number was up to more than 622 by Monday mid-day.

“It’s just been amazing,” said Mary Meacham, with the Lion’s Club.

Displaced families still need help, especially gift cards for gas or general purchases, but also for entertainment to keep children distracted from the trauma they experienced, Galle said. Donations are being coordinated via the Facebook group.

Cunningham and Herrick are staying with relatives and looking for a place.

Lerch and his son are staying in a donated trailer in the VFW parking lot. He’s grateful that, at least for now, the Alaskan summer weather is so good.

“It’s too much for me right now. It’s too much for me to figure out,” he said. “I don’t know why I need a toaster if I don’t have any place to put it.”

With new vaccine and mask requirements, businesses scramble to respond to delta variant and shifting health guidance

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 10:33

Disney on Friday became the latest company to announce that it would require many of its employees to be vaccinated. (John Raoux/AP) (John Raoux/)

Stunned business executives are struggling to adjust to the rapidly shifting environment caused by covid-19′s delta variant, rocked by a cascade of evolving mask and vaccine recommendations from federal, state, and local officials. In many cases, they are instituting new mask or vaccine guidelines - or requirements - within hours of shifting government reports.

The burst of new policies, which has intensified in just the past few days, has jolted automakers in Detroit, retailers in Texas, state universities in Missouri, technology giants in California, and now theme park and hospitality workers in Florida, California, Hawaii and elsewhere.

In the latest development, Walt Disney Co. on Friday told all salaried and nonunion hourly employees that they must be vaccinated by the end of September. Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, also announced it will mandate vaccines for workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. The retail giant also doubled its cash incentive, to $150, for store and warehouse workers who get the vaccine.

“As we all know, the pandemic is not over, and the Delta variant has led to an increase in infection rates across much of the U.S.,” chief executive Doug McMillon said in a memo to employees on Friday. “We want to get to a place where we can use our offices and be together safely.”

Many of these new policies about masks and vaccines are coming at a time when much of the country had believed the virus would be in the rearview mirror.

“I think we were all hoping we’d be through all of this at this point,” said Kelli Felker, global manufacturing and labor communications manager at Ford Motor Co., which said Friday it had added Georgia to the list of states where all employees will have to wear masks regardless of vaccine status - a policy already reinstated earlier in the week for workers in Kentucky, Missouri and Florida.

Other big companies have also moved aggressively in recent days, with Google and Facebook announcing a vaccine requirement for all workers and Citigroup reinstituting a universal mask mandate. But many other firms appeared to freeze, uncertain how to respond to a situation that seemed to be constantly shifting and an about-face recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for everyone to wear masks in most indoor settings - even if they’re vaccinated - to counter the dangerous delta variant.

As the White House followed that up Thursday with an announcement that all federal workers will have to be vaccinated, a growing number of cities and states that had not already taken that step followed suit.

San Diego County announced a vaccine requirement for its public workforce, while the governor of North Carolina issued an executive order for state workers to get vaccinated and called on businesses to also demand that workers receive the vaccine. But if the intent was to counter the alarming new covid surge - with cases up more than 60 percent across the U.S. in the last week - the upshot appeared to be widespread uncertainty and confusion.

Some companies announced new policies but multiple others stood by their old ones while mulling what to do next. Others ducked the muddle entirely by keeping their employees working from home well into the future.

“We don’t feel any pressure to go back just yet,” said Jonathan Johnson, chief executive of online furniture retailer Overstock, which is waiting until at least January 2022 to bring its 1,500 corporate workers back to its Midvale, Utah, headquarters. “With the delta variant and the spike in cases and hospitalizations, I’m sure glad we’re not back in the office wondering, ‘OK, is time to shuffle back home?’”

The challenge is particularly acute for corporations with operations in multiple states juggling public health rules and case rates that differ wildly from one place to another. Among companies that are trying to make hires amid a nationwide worker shortage, there was some reluctance to publicize new mandates. Meanwhile, public and private educational institutions that had spent all summer making plans for a return to in-person instruction suddenly faced a perilous new landscape of case rates rising beyond levels that had been deemed acceptable by local authorities.

At the University of Maryland, officials said they were “still actively planning for a return to full campus operations for the fall semester,” but would “not hesitate to adjust our plans or implement more stringent measures if needed.” The University of Missouri announced they were reinstating indoor masking requirements through at least mid-September.

In California, which moved before the federal government to require vaccinations for public employees, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was actively encouraging private employers to get their workers vaccinated, said spokesman Alex Stack. Changes were underway at a number of businesses in addition to Disney, with Netflix moving to require all cast members to get vaccinated, according to a report in Deadline Hollywood. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are definitely seeing businesses rethink their plans right now,” said Maria Salinas, head of the Los Angeles Area U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Business leaders are very concerned.”

In Las Vegas, MGM Resorts said employees would have to get vaccinated or pay for weekly coronavirus tests, and visitors would have to wear masks. Citigroup this week reinstated mask requirements for all employees, regardless of vaccination status. Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor, said it is continuing to monitor official guidelines while adhering to a patchwork of state, local and federal requirements.

“Whatever the guidance is, we follow it,” said spokesman Trent Perrotto. “Things are obviously in flux so right now it’s a lot of wait-and-see.”

For corporate executives no matter the industry, questions around masking, vaccinations and other covid policies are now urgent, said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner.

Even companies that aren’t mandating vaccines are increasingly providing perks to those who get them, Kropp said. Retailers like Walmart and Dollar General are promising extra pay and cash bonuses to inoculated workers, while other firms are limiting access to office gyms, cafeterias, shuttles and free lunches to vaccinated employees.

“It’s been a real shift from, ‘Hey, you should really get vaccinated,’ to ‘We’re going to create as many incentives as possible so that it’s in your best interest to be vaccinated,’” Kropp said.

But, he added, companies are hoping for more direction from the federal government. Many are struggling to work through a patchwork of guidelines from a variety of government entities.

“It’s very difficult for companies to navigate this,” Kropp said. “How do you balance safety versus freedom? Whatever they decide, they’re going to aggravate and alienate some part of their workforce.”

Nonetheless, a growing number of smaller companies have decided to require that employees - and in some cases, even customers - provide proof of vaccination. Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns high-end restaurants including Gramercy Tavern in New York and Maialino Mare in Washington, D.C., is requiring that all employees and new hires be fully vaccinated by Sept. 7. Guests who dine or drink indoors will also have to show a copy of their coronavirus vaccine card or a state-provided pass, spokeswoman Katie Chaplin said.

The Green Gate Garden Center in Seguin, Texas, began mandating vaccines for all customer-facing employees two weeks ago. All but one of its roughly 15 store workers complied, said office manager Robyn Wolters.

“We realized we had to very clear about it: You’re either vaccinated or you can’t work here,” said Wolters, who has two heart stents, putting her at high risk for covid complications. “We’ve been very fortunate that nobody here has gotten covid, but you just can’t trust everybody to do the right thing.”

Meanwhile in San Antonio, Texas, City Councilman John Courage sent his staff home on Monday after a sharp rise in local infection and hospitalization rates. He’d spent the previous week on vacation, in New England, and said he began to panic when he returned home and saw new covid cases surging.

“I just couldn’t, in good conscience, put my staff or my constituents at risk,” he said. “We’ve worked remotely for over a year - and have been incredibly effective and efficient - which shows that going into our offices isn’t necessary for us to do our job.”

Courage said he’d just begun to let his guard down about six weeks ago, when the city started phasing employees back into offices. His staff began coming back into the office - one person at a time, most days - and congregating for staff meetings on Mondays. He was looking forward to having more community outreach events.

But all of that is on hold now. If his employees do want to meet with constituents, Courage is asking that they gather outdoors in small groups and wear masks.

MilliporeSigma, a life sciences firm headquartered in Burlington, Mass., briefly lifted its mask requirement this summer but is reinstating it beginning Monday, a company spokesman said.

Early in the pandemic, employees at a lab outside Washington, D.C., worked a split schedule, logging 10 hour shifts for three or four days a week. But since November, they’ve been back at the office full-time, according to an associate scientist who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“This isn’t a field where we can work from home during the pandemic,” said the employee. “It’s especially important that everyone stays safe.”

We can no longer sit in the privilege of not knowing

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 09:42

iStock (Getty Images/iStockphoto/)

Over the past several weeks, a chilling number has steadily ballooned across our headlines: the count of Native children whose remains Canadian First Nations are unearthing across that country’s historical residential schools —schools the U.S. also established in its own territories as but one tactic in its violent colonization of the land Americans now inhabit, many of us ignorant to or in denial of truths like these, even as Native communities persist through their lasting burden.

Colonization rests upon an effective erasure of Indigenous people: of their culture, their language, often their very lives, all under a thin pretext of forcing compliance with a national ideal of what it means to be “civilized.” The boarding schools were one mechanism by which colonizers instituted this effort at the very seed of Native communities, among their children. At these schools, under the guise of education and reform, teachers and administrators punished children for speaking their own languages or otherwise sharing in their cultures. Some of these school leaders abused the young people physically and sexually, traumatizing them well beyond their years within those schools’ walls and destabilizing the communities to which they returned as adults.

If this is news to you, you haven’t been listening. You haven’t heard what Native communities have been telling us for centuries about their experiences of white settlers’ colonization — and not just hundreds of years ago, but through to the very day you are reading these words. At last, some of our highest institutions of power are scratching the surface of their stories, already finding horror and heartbreak beyond comprehension. What they as leaders, and what we as citizens, will do with this knowledge, remains to be seen. Will we shut down in denial or guilt? Or might we proactively learn these truths — about boarding schools, forced removals, calculated massacres, and so many other tactics of colonization — and move through the acknowledgment, apology and grief that will compel us to action?

And if that, then what action? Well, just as Native communities have held these truths for centuries, so too have they held paths forward, only we haven’t listened to those either. Now is a critical moment for us to educate ourselves on these solutions, from honoring treaties and ratifying the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples to enacting Free Prior and Informed Consent and engaging in a national truth and conciliation process.

In the next several months, America’s first Native Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, under the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, will undertake a similar investigation to that which First Nations communities have undertaken into Canada’s schools. Doubtless, we will find analogous tragedy in our own soils, and we must educate ourselves in preparation for these truths. More importantly, too, we must open our hearts for the grief and collective healing they will require of us moving forward, centering and amplifying the knowledge and answers Native communities have held out for generations.

Jessica Girard is the founding Director of Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition.

Leah Moss is Communications Director for The Alaska Center.

Veri di Suvero is Executive Director of Alaska Public Interest Research Group.

Matt Jackson is a Climate Organizer, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Taylor Kendal is Communications Director for Cook Inletkeeper.

The authors are white-identifying allies seeking to amplify and support Indigenous voices at the decision-making tables in Alaska. They live and work on the unceded lands of Alaska Native Peoples.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Child care is key in Alaska’s transition to a vibrant economy

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 09:23

Downtown Anchorage, Alaska, photographed on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

Earlier this month, the Municipality of Anchorage transitioned leadership, welcoming a new mayor. Thread, Alaska’s Child Care Resource & Referral Network, congratulates Mayor Dave Bronson on his new position and looks forward to working with his administration to address current COVID-19 concerns and return the Municipality to a vibrant local economy. Ensuring that families have access to high-quality, affordable child care is essential for our community’s recovery process and growth.

Over the past eighteen months, we have experienced constant change and adapted to a new normal in our family, social, and work lives. As Alaska begins to address how to transition from a state of crisis to a period of economic recovery while navigating the continuing impacts of COVID-19, employers are examining new ways to support employees while parents grapple with transitioning their children back to child care and school.

Working families are a large part of the workforce that is needed to achieve economic revitalization. Without child care, parents and caregivers can’t support their families or contribute to our local economy, and businesses can’t succeed. A strong child care infrastructure is also critical to the Municipality attracting and retaining talent.

Thread thanks former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson for her efforts to support the Municipality’s working families and children, including:

• Signing the Municipality’s first paid parental leave policy, under which the Municipality will award paid parental leave to eligible municipal employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA);

• Dedicating federal stimulus money to stabilize the Municipality’s child care programs;

• Fast-tracking child care assistance grants; and

• Distributing vouchers to families in need for necessities like gas and groceries.

As we chart a new path forward, Thread looks forward to working with Mayor Bronson to continue to prioritize what families need, including options for child care and work.

In the short term, this means stabilizing the child care system by providing assistance to licensed child care programs to allow them to remain open, retain the existing workforce, and make child care more affordable to families.

At the same time, we must begin the work to transition the current market-based system, which is not affordable for families or child care business owners yet underpays the child care workforce, to a thriving system that benefits all Alaskans. We can do this by making investments in early childhood education similar to the investments we make in other education systems. The current shortage in the state’s child care workforce highlights the need to provide child care workers a livable wage, recognize child care as a profession, and acknowledge the essential role that child care plays in sustaining our economy. A successful transition in how we support child care will have long-lasting effects on the health of our community, and all Alaskans will reap the benefits. High-quality child care programs have been shown to have substantial benefits in reducing crime, raising earnings, promoting education and strengthening long-term health. Investing in child care benefits our community now by supporting working families and local businesses and protects the future of our community by providing children with a solid foundation to succeed.

Achieving a vibrant economy will require us to re-envision child care and create the necessary infrastructure to realize that vision. While we work to stabilize the child care system in the short term, we have an opportunity to transform child care to ensure it supports economic revitalization, expansion, and diversification of our community for years to come. Thread is excited to work with the new administration to achieve this.

To learn more about Thread and the role high-quality child care can play in revitalizing our community, visit threadalaska.org.

Elena Romerdahl is a partner in the Anchorage office of Perkins Coie LLP, mother of two, and the current president of the Thread Board of Directors.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Troopers: Pilot unhurt after Seabee plane makes emergency landing on Parks Highway

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 08:35

A single-engine Seabee aircraft made an emergency landing on the Parks Highway near Talkeetna on Sunday evening, according to Alaska State Troopers.

The pilot was the only person in the plane and wasn’t hurt, according to a troopers spokesperson.

Troopers in an online dispatch said they got a call around 6:20 p.m. about a plane that landed on the highway near Mile 95. Troopers arrived to find the plane in the ditch on the north side of the highway.

The pilot said they lost power and had to make an emergency landing, troopers said. The plane struck an overhead power line on the way down.

Responders from Talkeetna Fire Department secured the downed lines and the plane was moved out of the way. Traffic was not blocked during the incident.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating, troopers say.

The Seabee is an amphibious aircraft first produced during World War II and described as a “chubby little seaplane” tough enough to operate from both dirt air strips and rough water by Air and Space Magazine.

At an extraordinary Olympics, acts of kindness abound

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 08:31

FILE - In this July 27, 2021, file photo, Claire Michel of Belgium is assisted by Lotte Miller of Norway after the finish of the women's individual triathlon competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File) (David Goldman/)

TOKYO — A surfer jumping in to translate for the rival who’d just beaten him. High-jumping friends agreeing to share a gold medal rather than move to a tiebreaker. Two runners falling in a tangle of legs, then helping each other to the finish line.

In an extraordinary Olympic Games where mental health has been front and center, acts of kindness are everywhere. The world’s most competitive athletes have been captured showing gentleness and warmth to one another — celebrating, pep-talking, wiping away one another’s tears of disappointment.

Kanoa Igarashi of Japan was disappointed when he lost to Brazilian Italo Ferreira in their sport’s Olympic debut.

Not only did he blow his shot at gold on the beach he grew up surfing, he was also being taunted online by racist Brazilian trolls.

The Japanese-American surfer could have stewed in silence, but he instead deployed his knowledge of Portuguese, helping to translate a press conference question for Ferreira on the world stage.

The crowd giggled hearing the cross-rival translation and an official thanked the silver medalist for the assist.

“Yes, thank you, Kanoa,” said a beaming Ferreira, who is learning English.


FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2021, file photo, Argentina goalkeeper Maria Belen Succi (1) comforts Germany's Charlotte Stapenhorst, right, after Argentina won their women's field hockey match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/John Locher, File) (John Locher/)

Days later, at the Olympic Stadium, Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar found themselves in a situation they’d talked about but never experienced — they were tied.

Both high jumpers were perfect until the bar was set to the Olympic-record height of 2.39 meters (7 feet, 10 inches). Each missed three times.

They could have gone to a jump-off, but instead decided to share the gold.

“I know for a fact that for the performance I did, I deserve that gold. He did the same thing, so I know he deserved that gold,” Barshim said. “This is beyond sport. This is the message we deliver to the young generation.”


FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2021, file photo, Gianmarco Tamberi, of Italy, embraces fellow gold medalist Mutaz Barshim, of Qatar, after the final of the men's high jump at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File) (Matthias Schrader/)

After they decided, Tamberi slapped Barshim’s hand and jumped into his arms.

“Sharing with a friend is even more beautiful,” Tamberi said. “It was just magical.”

Earlier, on the same track, runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nijel Amos of Botswana got tangled and fell during the 800-meter semifinals. Rather than get angry, they helped each other to their feet, put their arms around each other and finished together.


Isaiah Jewett, of the United States, and Nijel Amos, right, of Botswana, shake hands after falling in the men's 800-meter semifinal at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong/)

Many top athletes come to know each other personally from their time on the road, which can feel long, concentrated, and intense — marked by career moments that may be the best or worst of their lives.

Those feelings have often been amplified at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, where there is an unmistakable yearning for normalcy and, perhaps, a newfound appreciation for seeing familiar faces.

Restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have meant Olympians can’t mingle the way they normally do.

After a hard-fought, three-set victory in the beach volleyball round-robin final on Saturday at Shiokaze Park, Brazilian Rebecca Cavalcanti playfully poured a bottle of water on American Kelly Claes’ back as she did postgame interviews.

The U.S. team had just defeated Brazil but the winners laughed it off, explaining that they’re friends.

“I’m excited when quarantine’s done so we can sit at the same table and go to dinner with them. But it’s kind of hard in a bubble because we have to be away,” said Sarah Sponcil, Claes’ teammate.

For fellow American Carissa Moore, the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions brought her closer with the other surfers.

The reigning world champion said she typically travels to surfing competitions with her husband and father. But all fans were banned this year, and Moore admitted she struggled without their reassuring presence in the initial days of the Games.

Moore had flown to Japan with the U.S. team 10 days before the first heat, and soon adjusted to living in a home with the other surfers, including Caroline Marks, whom Moore considered the woman to beat.

Moore said she didn’t know Marks well before the Tokyo Games but on the night she was crowned the winner and Marks came in fourth, her rival was the first to greet her.

“Having the USA Surf team with me, it’s been such a beautiful experience to bond with them,” Moore said. “I feel like I have a whole another family after the last two weeks.”

After the punishing women’s triathlon last week in Tokyo, Norwegian Lotte Miller, who placed 24th, took a moment to give a pep talk to Belgium’s Claire Michel, who was inconsolable and slumped on the ground, sobbing.

Michel had come in last, 15 minutes behind winner Flora Duffy of Bermuda — but at least she finished. Fifty-four athletes started the race but 20 were either lapped or dropped out.

“You’re a (expletive) fighter,” Miller told Michel. “This is Olympic spirit, and you’ve got it 100%.”

Associated Press reporters Pat Graham, Jimmy Golen and Jim Vertuno contributed.

Poland grants visa to Belarus Olympian who fears for safety

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 08:22

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, of Belarus, runs in the women's 100-meter run at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021. Tsimanouskaya alleged her Olympic team tried to remove her from Japan in a dispute that led to a standoff Sunday, Aug. 1, at Tokyo’s main airport. An activist group supporting Tsimanouskaya said she believed her life was in danger in Belarus and would seek asylum with the Austrian embassy in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) (Martin Meissner/)

TOKYO — Poland granted a visa Monday to a Belarusian Olympic sprinter who said she feared for her safety and that her team’s officials tried to force her to fly home, where the autocratic government was accused of diverting a flight to arrest a dissident journalist.

An activist group that is helping athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya told The Associated Press that it bought her a plane ticket to Warsaw for the coming days.

The current standoff apparently began after Tsimanouskaya criticized how officials were managing her team — setting off a massive backlash in state-run media back home, where authorities relentlessly crack down on government critics. The runner said on her Instagram account that she was put in the 4x400 relay even though she has never raced in the event.

The runner was then apparently hustled to the airport but refused to board a flight for Istanbul and instead approached police for help. In a filmed message distributed on social media, she also asked the International Olympic Committee for assistance.

“I was put under pressure, and they are trying to forcibly take me out of the country without my consent,” the 24-year-old said in the message.


In this image made from video provided by NTV, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya enters the Polish embassy in Tokyo, Japan, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Tsimanouskaya plans to seek asylum in Poland, an activist group said Monday, after the athlete alleged that her team’s officials tried to force her to fly home, where she feared she wouldn’t be safe from an autocratic government that recently was accused of diverting a plane in order to arrest a dissident journalist. (NTV via AP)

The rapid-fire series of events brought international political intrigue to an Olympics that have been more focused on operational dramas, like maintaining safety during a pandemic and navigating widespread Japanese opposition to holding the event at all.

Belarus’ authoritarian government has relentlessly targeted anyone even mildly expressing dissent since a presidential election a year ago triggered a wave of unprecedented mass protests. And it has also gone to extremes to stop its critics, including the recent plane diversion that European officials called an act of air piracy.

In this context, Tsimanouskaya feared for her safety once she saw the campaign against her in state media, according to the Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, the activist group that is helping her.

“The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,” Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the foundation, told the AP in an interview.

State media have continued to come down hard on Tsimanouskaya. Presenters on state TV channel Belarus 1 called her decision to seek asylum “a cheap stunt” and “a disgusting act,” and described her performance at the Olympics as a “failure.”

Tsimanouskaya competed for Belarus on the first day of track events Friday at the National Stadium in Tokyo. She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.

She was due to compete again in the Olympic 200-meter heats on Monday, but she said her team barred her from participating in a complaint filed with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She asked the court to overturn that decision, but the body declined to intervene.

Tsimanouskaya’s next steps were not clear. Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek, a Polish deputy foreign minister, said the runner asked for the humanitarian visa for now and can still seek refugee status once in Poland. Vadim Krivosheyev, of the activist sports foundation, said she planned to seek asylum.

Athletes seeking asylum at global sporting events is nothing new — though Tsimanouskaya’s circumstances differ from the typical situation. Requests for asylum were especially frequent during the Cold War but they have also happened occasionally in the decades since. As many as 117 athletes defected at the Munich Olympics in 1972, according to reports at the time. At least four Romanians and a Soviet associated with the Olympics defected at the Montreal Games in 1976. And Cuban athletes have frequently done so.

Underscoring the seriousness of the allegations, several groups and countries say they are helping the runner. Poland and the Czech Republic offered assistance, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry said it was working with the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Olympics organizers.

The IOC, which has been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo Games, said it had intervened.

“The IOC … is looking into the situation and has asked the NOC for clarification,” it said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Belarus Olympic team did not respond to a request for comment.

Many critics of Belarus’ government have fled to Poland. A top Belarusian dissident in the country, Pavel Latushka, said Tsimanouskaya and those supporting her had sought assistance from various European governments, but Poland was the quickest to respond.

Marcin Przydacz, one of the country’s deputy foreign ministers, said on Twitter that in addition to granting the humanitarian visa, Poland would also help the runner to continue her sports career. “Poland always stands for Solidarity,” he said.

Several hours after she entered the Polish embassy, Tsimanouskaya was still believed to be inside.

Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek also tweeted that the Czech Republic has offered her asylum.

The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Viktor.

Both Lukashenkos are banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation during the crackdown following the wave of anti-government protests over the last year.

“Lukashenko perceives all criticism as part of a plot by Western countries,” said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian political analyst. “Tsimanouskaya’s protest is viewed as part of a broader movement of hundreds of Belarusian athletes who stood against the beatings of peaceful demonstrators and for a year have been taking part in street rallies.”

The standoff over Tsimanouskaya comes just months after the dramatic diversion of a passenger plane flying between two EU countries. Belarusian authorities ordered the plane to land in Minsk — and pulled journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend off the flight.

The elder Lukashenko maintained that there was a bomb threat against the plane and that’s why a fighter jet was scrambled to force it to land, but the move was roundly criticized by Western leaders.

Pratasevich, who ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against Lukashenko’s rule, left his homeland in 2019. He has been charged with fomenting mass unrest and is under house arrest while he awaits trial.

Associated Press journalists Daria Litvinova and Daniel Kozin in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

Taliban advances into major Afghan cities for first time in two decades

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 05:52

A policeman sits in an outpost in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as Afghan security forces find themselves engaged in a battle with the Taliban inside the city limits. Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The Taliban is ramping up pressure on some of Afghanistan’s largest cities, striking busy transit hubs and pushing front lines deep into urban areas for the first time since the militants were overthrown nearly two decades ago.

Taliban fighters launched rockets Saturday at airports in Kandahar and Herat, two of the country’s largest cities and busiest economic centers. The attacks disrupted commercial travel, though flights in and out of Herat subsequently resumed.

“There was a large blast and the whole room started shaking,” said Massoud Ahmad Pashtun, the chief of Kandahar airport, who was present at the time of the attack. He said three rockets landed within seconds of each other and damaged one of the runways.

The attacks mark a potential turning point in the Afghan conflict. Previously, clashes were largely confined to the country’s rural areas or smaller cities contested by the militants. Large-scale conventional attacks on Kandahar and Herat, the second- and fourth-largest cities in the country, have the potential to endanger millions more civilians.

Initial reports suggested the Kandahar rocket attack came from the eastern side of the city, where Taliban fighters have made advances. Pashtun said he feared more attacks in the coming days, because of the deteriorating security situation and the removal of an American antimissile system that protected the airfield before the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the southern province.

Gen. Ajmal Shinwari, a security forces spokesperson, said at a news conference on Sunday that all troops were on high alert due to “the emergency situations” in Kandahar and Herat. Hundreds more Afghan forces have been sent to the southern and western provinces as reinforcements.

Taliban attacks in Kandahar province have been ongoing for months, but in recent days the group began pushing closer into the city center.

Frontlines that crisscrossed largely agricultural suburbs just weeks ago now span densely populated neighborhoods. Just a few hundred meters from a Taliban-held neighborhood on Kandahar’s western edge, government forces have transformed a wedding hall and an opulent multistory home into makeshift bases.

“They watch us from those houses over there,” said a commando officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. He pointed out a white Taliban flag visible just a few blocks away from a traffic circle.

The government soldiers said they exchanged fire with Taliban fighters occasionally during the day, but it is at night that clashes grow more intense.

Thousands of civilians are being forced to flee their homes. Deeper inside Kandahar city, makeshift camps have sprung up in empty lots.

Jalil Ahmad, 30, said his house was destroyed by a mortar attack and his ears were still ringing from the blast. He said a police unit took up a firing position on to the roof of his home, and Taliban fighters retaliated with a volley of mortars.

“An entire wall collapsed on my family,” he said. “We have never seen fighting like this in our area before.”

In Herat, Afghan special forces were deployed to the city on Sunday to help push back Taliban advances. Taliban fighters breached the city limits and a United Nations compound was attacked, as clashed raged for hours. The U.N. condemned the attack. A Taliban statement described the destruction as “regrettable,” saying the group remains committed to protecting the U.N.

Abdul Rahman Rahman, an Interior Ministry adviser, traveled to Herat on Sunday to calm “the atmosphere of panic” growing in the city, he said. Rahman arrived with a team of Afghan special forces, which he pledged would deal “fiercely” with the Taliban.

The Taliban push on major cities comes as the group continues to squeeze much smaller provincial capitals in areas long contested by militants. In Helmand, a province that has been one of the least stable in Afghanistan for years, fighting intensified last week, heightening fears that the province’s capital would fall. Taliban fighters have pushed inside the city’s limits and are steadily closing in on the central government compound.

Afghan forces responded with a punishing wave of air support. One airstrike hit a small hospital on the city’s outskirts Saturday, killing the relative of a patient and injuring four others, including a patient and three members of staff, according to hospital director Mohammad din Naraiwal.

As the airstrikes drew closer in recent days, Naraiwal repeatedly communicated with Afghan government forces, asking them not to strike the facility. He said no Taliban fighters were present in the building when it was hit.

“I’m worried if the government resupplies their forces there will be more fighting,” he said. “There will be more civilian casualties.”

- - -

Ezzatullah Mehrdad contributed from Kabul.

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