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News Brief: Atlanta Shooting Sparks Protests; Coronavirus Cases Surge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

To Georgia's NAACP, Rayshard Brooks was, quote, "killed for sleeping."

NOEL KING, HOST:

To the medical examiner, his death was a homicide. Mr. Brooks, who is from Atlanta, fell asleep in the drive-through of a Wendy's. Police gave him sobriety tests and then started to arrest him. He struggled. He grabbed one of their Tasers and ran, and then video shows an officer shot him in the back.

INSKEEP: The weekend has been filled with responses in Atlanta, and Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler is covering it all. Good morning.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What was the weekend like?

FOWLER: Well, Steve, I think on Saturday there was a righteous rage. People across the country have taken to the streets in recent weeks, including in Atlanta, to protest police brutality and call for reforms. And then it happened here in Atlanta, another police shooting of a black man by a white police officer. On Saturday, several dozen arrests were made after protesters blocked a major highway. Another demonstration formed at the Wendy's where Rayshard was killed. And fire officials are searching for information on who set off fireworks inside the restaurant and set it ablaze. Now, things have been peaceful since then. People cleaned up the Wendy's Sunday morning and things like that. But demonstrations are still planned today as people search for answers and actions.

INSKEEP: How did people in Atlanta respond to a dramatic move by the mayor? The chief of police resigned on Saturday.

FOWLER: Well, Chief Erika Shields has been a longtime officer with the Atlanta Police Department, serving as chief for the last 3 1/2 years. She was very popular with officers and the mayor's office and community organizers. During many protests in the city, video showed her down with protesters talking to them and hearing their concerns. Much of the police force in the city is black. Shields is white. So some say her resignation where she'll still be employed in some capacity is symbolic while others say it's an important step to make real change with policing in our community.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about the possibility of an investigation of the officers here. We have two officers who responded to a nonviolent situation, someone who appeared to them to be intoxicated. They gave him sobriety tests and then attempted to arrest him. There was a struggle. Brooks did come away with a Taser, did try to run away but was not running toward the officers. He was running away from the officers, according to video. What could the officers plausibly be charged with, if anything?

FOWLER: Well, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said that the answer could come by midweek. That could be anything from voluntary manslaughter to felony murder. Felony murder means the DA's office believes that an underlying felony that officer committed led to Brooks' death. It's also important to note that the DA here is in second place headed to a runoff in August and is facing sexual harassment allegations and investigations into use of nonprofit funds. So some people are worried that these charges could be politicized and could end up harming real justice.

INSKEEP: Are people continuing to protest today?

FOWLER: This morning, Steve, there is a march planned to the state capital that the NAACP is heading up. Originally, it was supposed to be about voting rights after Georgia's much maligned primary last Tuesday. But then the criminal justice reform was added. And now with this shooting, there's going to be a huge demonstration. It's all related together.

INSKEEP: OK. We'll be listening for your coverage, Mr. Fowler. Thank you very much.

FOWLER: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

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INSKEEP: What is driving the most recent spikes in coronavirus cases?

KING: The numbers of infections are rising in at least 20 states, and that includes states that opened up earlier than others - Alabama, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas. Now the CDC is offering more advice on how to stay safe.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to talk through these latest spikes. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's look over the map a little more. What are some areas of concern?

AUBREY: If you look at the national map, deaths from coronavirus continue to trend downward. But the reality is, in some areas, there's a lot of concern the virus is circulating widely. For instance, in Houston, there's been a significant increase in hospitalizations; in fact, record high increases over the last several days in the state. I spoke to Lina Hidalgo. She's the Harris County judge. She oversees emergency response there. This county includes Houston. She says if current trends continue in the county, it could be on the precipice of a real disaster.

LINA HIDALGO: Right now, we're seeing that the spread is just too much for us to get a grip on. And we've reopened so fast that folks have gotten the idea life is back to normal. And I hope I'm wrong. I hope that we don't end up having a crisis. And so we're throwing all we have at it. But certainly, you know, I would have done it differently.

AUBREY: She says she would have waited to relax restrictions until the virus seemed more under control in her county. But the governor's orders have blocked enforcement of local decisions or local orders, so she's urging people in her county to be vigilant and take precautions.

INSKEEP: Well, is she right about what the problem is here? Are the numbers increasing because people are moving around more?

AUBREY: Well, on Friday, CDC officials said some increases in cases may be linked to more testing, to better detection. But, yes, the point Lina Hidalgo makes is that people going out more seems to be a big factor here. She says every time restrictions have been relaxed in the state, a few weeks later, there's been a rise in cases. It happened after the first phase of reopening and even more so after Memorial Day three weeks ago.

HIDALGO: And since then, unfortunately, people have only gone out even more, you know, to in-person graduations, to bars, to clubs, to the protests as well. We're not seeing that impact right now yet, but, presumably, this trend will continue.

AUBREY: So she says take precautions. On Friday, the CDC released more guidance advising people to wear masks when they're out in public - there is increasing evidence that masks are effective - and to limit the time of your interactions with others. Remember, Steve, that the more closely you interact and the longer you interact, the higher the risk.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, absolutely, the greater exposure to the virus, the more times you are exposed to the virus, the more likelihood of an infection. I want to ask, Allison, though, we talk about major urban areas like Phoenix that have gotten a lot worse. Haven't rural areas largely been spared up to now?

AUBREY: You know, we've heard a lot about the cases in meat processing facilities. Those are in less populated places. But data from the state of Kansas is illuminating. It details cases linked to a whole bunch of different venues throughout the states - it was earlier in the spring - for instance, more than 30 cases linked to three separate churches, as well as cases stemming from a keg party, cases from a coffee gathering of retirees and a restaurant, too. So as more places reopen, from restaurants to gyms around the country, it's important to be cautious because the virus is still circulating, and it's unpredictable.

INSKEEP: Can spread in any area at all. Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

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INSKEEP: Now, one of the states where cases are rising is Arizona.

KING: That's right. The average number of daily cases there has almost tripled in the last two weeks. The state's biggest hospital system is warning that there could be a shortage of ICU beds. And yet Arizona's governor, Doug Ducey, is moving forward with plans to reopen the state.

INSKEEP: Will Stone is following events in Arizona. Good morning.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the state going to do differently, if anything, now that it's reopened and cases have soared?

STONE: Well, at the moment, Steve, the approach is really to stay the course. Governor Ducey said they expected to see a spike in cases during this time period. And we're definitely seeing that. The average daily case count has nearly quadrupled since the end of May. Still, Ducey's saying that hospitals have enough beds to handle it. That's, you know, despite the state's largest hospital system warning recently they're running low on ICU beds. So even as many national experts are sounding the alarm about Arizona's outbreak, Ducey's really trying to counter that narrative that the state is on the verge of a crisis or that he lifted the stay-at-home order too quickly. Here he is at his most recent press conference.

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DOUG DUCEY: This has always been about saving lives. And it's also about livelihoods in the state of Arizona. We put the stay-at-home order there so we could prepare for what we are going through right now. And we are prepared for it.

STONE: The governor's really focused on this idea of hospital capacity, that there is plenty of room to deal with a surge. And, basically, people have to accept that this virus will keep spreading in the community and adapt. But they have to continue to live their lives.

INSKEEP: And what are the governor's critics saying?

STONE: Well, they say the governor is being complacent, that the state opened before it was ready and has been slow to push even basic measures like mandatory masks in public. You know, what's particularly contentious is the governor has actually prevented cities and local governments from putting in place their own additional public health measures. Here's what Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who's a Democrat, had to say.

REGINA ROMERO: He's just, you know, putting up his hands and saying, well, the spread is happening and so we just have to, you know, just go about our business. This is an emergency. We're losing lives.

STONE: Romero says she's not necessarily calling for a full shutdown of the economy yet but that her hands are basically tied from doing almost anything beyond what the governor has ordered.

INSKEEP: Based on what the governor has been saying, Will, is there any point at which he would say, OK, this is too many deaths, this is not working, we need to back up?

STONE: It's really unclear. He says they're always monitoring the situation and looking at hospital capacity, and they may make some adjustments if necessary, like halting all elective surgeries. But putting in place any major new restrictions or something like a second stay-at-home order, Ducey said that was still not under discussion.

INSKEEP: I'm just curious, in your day-to-day life, does it feel like people are acting as though it's normal, as though it were, you know, June of 2019 instead of June to 2020? Are people acting exactly the same as they were?

STONE: The general consensus is that because the stay-at-home home order was lifted quickly, there just hasn't been a lot of awareness. And people aren't wearing masks and that you're still seeing crowded restaurants, and, of course, that's really problematic.

INSKEEP: OK. Will Stone, thanks so much.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.