News Brief: Senate Health Committee, U.K. Reopening Plan, College Lawsuit
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How safe is it for Americans to return to work, whether it's to auto factories in Michigan or tattoo parlors in Georgia?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, a Senate committee considers that question. The hearing itself will be held in circumstances that suggest an answer. Anybody still working must do so carefully, and the four Trump administration officials who testify will do so remotely; three are in self-quarantine after they came in contact with people who tested positive.
INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us once again. Mara, good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What does the image of witnesses on screens in the hearing room suggest about how far this virus has spread within the Trump administration?
LIASSON: Well, it's spread in the White House. You know, the president's military valet, the vice president's press secretary both tested positive. It says that even the White House can't keep people safe. And it raises the question, how can people who are being asked to go back to work, to go out to restaurants to eat and shop, how can they be confident if they don't have the same resources as the White House? The other question it raises is, why isn't everyone or a lot of other people at the White House self-quarantining if these officials are? You know, the White House says it's taking precautions. They say the president and the vice president are tested regularly, and they are negative. But we have seen the president - we haven't seen the president wear a mask. We've seen the vice president only wear a mask once and not always stand 6 feet apart from other officials they're meeting with.
INSKEEP: Yeah. They've had an awful lot of briefings where people were standing less than 6 feet apart, fewer than 6 feet apart. Now, at this hearing, isn't even the chair of the Senate committee in self-quarantine?
LIASSON: Yes. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, he's the chair of the committee, he is going to lead it remotely because a member of his own staff tested positive. Yesterday on "Meet The Press," he said that we need a robust testing system if we're going to get people back to work and figure out who's infected and who's not.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
LAMAR ALEXANDER: If you take a test and you know that you don't have COVID-19 and you know that everybody around you took a test that same day, you're going to have enough confidence to go back to work and back to school.
LIASSON: You know, Alexander also said there's just not enough federal aid to keep the economy in a medically induced coma. It needs to open up. But as he said, to open up, you need testing, then you need tracing and then you need isolation. You need to know who should go to work and who should stay home. This is not the message you're hearing from the White House. But I think we will hear more about that tomorrow during that hearing.
INSKEEP: I guess it can't be because there's not enough testing according to the experts. Millions of tests have been done but not at the rate the experts say is necessary. So what is the president's argument for putting people back to work?
LIASSON: Well, the president is really pivoting away from being a wartime president fighting the pandemic. Now he's back more in what he calls the cheerleader role. He wants to get the economy back up and running as fast as possible. He's also downplayed the need for widespread testing as a condition for people going back to work. On Friday, he was on "Fox & Friends." He was talking about his aide who had tested positive. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have the best testing in the world, but testing is not necessarily the answer because they were testing them. They tested them four days before.
LIASSON: Yeah, and then four days later, he had the virus. The president seems to think that testing is what keeps you safe. Testing is just what tells you if you have the virus. It's social distancing and other measures like wearing a mask that keep you from getting the virus. But that's not behavior the president wants to model.
INSKEEP: Very briefly, how important is it to the president politically to reopen the economy?
LIASSON: Hugely important. He sees that as crucial to his reelection chances. We know that historically presidents usually win reelection unless there's a recession where they usually lose.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: OK. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was critically ill just last month from the coronavirus, says it's time to reopen the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We must continue to control the virus and save lives. And yet we must also recognize that this campaign against the virus has come at colossal cost to our way of life. We can see it all around us in these shuttered shops and abandoned businesses and darkened pubs and restaurants.
MARTIN: Johnson is no longer telling people to stay at home. Instead, he says people should, in his words, stay alert. The prime minister also emphasized just how much the lockdown has damaged the British economy. Johnson's changes will apply in England, but in the rest of the country - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - leaders are taking a different approach.
INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London. Hi there, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear. It's not that Britain is going back to however things were in January. What parts of the lockdown are supposed to come to an end?
LANGFITT: Well, you know, Steve, we've been able to go out once a day for exercise now, the prime minister says, as much as we want. If you can't work from home, he's saying go to work, avoid public transport and socially distance. He would like to see factory workers and construction workers particularly go back. And then elementary schools and shops could begin to reopen in a phased way as early as June 1.
INSKEEP: Are the various other leaders of the United Kingdom united on this?
LANGFITT: No. You know, Johnson's new message is stay alert, control the virus and save lives. And leaders in the rest of the country - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - don't like this message at all. They find it too confusing. They're still sticking with the old message, which was stay at home, which is pretty clear for people to understand. Now, particularly Northern Ireland and Scotland, they have higher virus transmission rates than England, so they're being more cautious. And Nicola Sturgeon was - she was speaking nationally yesterday. She's the first minister of Scotland. She says this message - this new message is too vague. And she thinks, Steve, it puts people at risk.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NICOLA STURGEON: We mustn't squander our progress by easing up too soon or by sending mixed messages that result in people thinking that it's OK to ease up now. Let me be very blunt about the consequences if we were to do that - people will die unnecessarily.
LANGFITT: Yeah. I got to say, Steve, police are not happy with this at - well, they're having a hard time. In the last few days, people have come out a lot. I've noticed people not really social distancing that much in the country. And the Police Federation of Wales and - England and Wales said without really clear guidance, it's going to be almost impossible for them to enforce this.
INSKEEP: Frank, I was just looking at some charts published by The New York Times from health care experts. And it just illustrates the obvious. When you relax social distancing, the number of cases goes up. So what is Johnson's plan if the number of cases starts to rise again, as we can expect there in the U.K.?
LANGFITT: Yeah. I think you're right, Steve, and he was emphatic last night because he knows that there's going to be criticism if we see another spike. He says if they start to rise again, he's going to tighten back up. But this is very difficult and risky. You know, the economy here is in its deepest downturn in modern memory. He knows that if he begins to reopen and then has to shut down, it's going to be a huge blow to confidence, which is crucial to business investment and getting the economy here the U.K. back on its feet.
INSKEEP: OK. Frank, thanks so much.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: For-profit Career College in Florida received $17 million in coronavirus relief money from the federal government.
MARTIN: That is not that unusual. Many schools have gotten help from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act. What is unusual is that Florida Career College is also facing a class-action lawsuit, one that calls the school a, quote, "sham."
INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner has been covering this suit. Good morning, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What kind of college is Florida Career College?
TURNER: Well, it's a for-profit vocational college with 10 campuses across Florida, one in Texas. According to federal data, it serves about 6,000 students or so. It offers mostly short-term certificate programs, so think HVAC technician, auto mechanic, medical assistant. And the school, you know, they really sell themselves as a gateway, not just to a job but to a career.
INSKEEP: Which sounds good, but I presume this lawsuit alleges they do something else.
TURNER: Yeah. So let's start with a student I spoke with. His name is Stephen Stewart. He enrolled in FCC's HVAC program using a federal Pell Grant and taking out some $15,000 in loans for a 10-month course. Here's what he told me.
STEPHEN STEWART: They made it seem like they were going to put you into a job and the job was going to be paying enough to the point where you could handle your own necessities while still paying this ridiculous tuition. In reality, none of those jobs were paying like that.
TURNER: The plaintiffs say this is the pattern, that FCC charges exorbitant prices and pressures students into loans that they don't understand by promising to find them jobs that it never does. The complaint also says multiple programs lack basic equipment. One student told me his teacher admitted to the class that he had little experience in their field. But as someone who's studied lawsuits like this before, Steve, what really sets this complaint apart is that it alleges that FCC specifically targets not just low-income students but communities of color. It's a practice known as reverse redlining.
INSKEEP: Whoa, reverse redlining - I've heard of redlining before. I'm familiar with it from real estate where were you, like, draw off a minority neighborhood and banks refuse to lend there. What is reverse redlining?
TURNER: That's right. Instead of denying a product to a protected group of people, reverse redlining is essentially targeting that group with an allegedly predatory product. Students of color make up the vast majority of FCC's student body. And the complaint says too many leave without a job, training or really any hope of paying down their loans. It's also worth noting, though FCC is private, for-profit, around 86% of its revenue comes from federal student aid. And that's not counting the $17 million it's getting from the CARES Act.
INSKEEP: How does Florida Career College defend itself?
TURNER: So it did not respond to my multiple requests for answers to individual questions, but I did get a statement from the school's general counsel that says, quote, "this lawsuit is baseless legally and factually, though we cannot comment because the matter is in litigation. We will aggressively fight these false allegations."
INSKEEP: And we'll hear what the court has to say about that. Cory, thanks so much.
TURNER: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.