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News Brief: Texas' COVID-19 Spike, Colleges' Fall Semester, Police Reform

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

More than half of all U.S. states are experiencing a surge in the number of new daily coronavirus cases.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yesterday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all announced a 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors coming from nine states that have elevated case numbers. One of those states that has a spike right now is Texas, which earlier this week reported a record 5,551 new coronavirus cases in a single day.

GREENE: Well, let's talk this through with Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Hi, Ashley. Thanks for coming on.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: So I want to ask you about one of the trends we're seeing here. It looks like a lot of these new cases are people in their 20s, 30s, 40s. Is anyone able to explain that at this point?

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, that appears to be tied to Governor Greg Abbott allowing bars, restaurants and salons and the like to reopen when he lifted the statewide stay-at-home orders back in April. And epidemiologists also say that a lot of these spikes in cases happened after holidays like Easter and Memorial Day. That means a lot of transmission is happening in these smaller gatherings.

GREENE: Well, I mean, one of the interesting dynamics here is you have the big cities in Texas basically telling the state if you're not going to do more to prevent this, we're going to impose our own restrictions. I mean, how is that going over with the governor?

LOPEZ: I mean, not well. I mean, up until last week, he wouldn't allow them to do that, to impose any big restrictions on businesses. Abbott remains reticent about taking any major action that would affect businesses. He's been urging people to stay at home if they can, telling them to wear masks and wash their hands, avoid any gatherings. But he says actually shutting down businesses at this point is the absolute last resort. Here's Abbott during a recent press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GREG ABBOTT: Texans have already shown that we don't have to choose between jobs and health. We can have both. We can protect Texans' lives while also restoring their livelihoods.

GREENE: So, Ashley, the communities, the cities that are taking their own action, is it making a difference? Is there a way to tell at this point?

LOPEZ: I mean, it's still pretty early to tell. Cities were again only recently allowed to start imposing their own rules. And mayors are saying this is not enough. They got the OK to penalize businesses for, like, not requiring people to wear masks. But other than that, there's not much to enforce that would keep the virus from actually spreading.

GREENE: Well - and as numbers go up, I mean, one of the big concerns of health experts is hospital capacity. How is the state dealing with that so far with these new cases rising?

LOPEZ: Yeah, it's a big concern and not well. Yesterday, the Children's Hospital in Houston started admitting adult patients. Some hospitals are reporting a surge of patients in their ICUs, you know. But the Texas Hospital Association says that as of now, most hospitals still have some headroom, as in, like, they set aside some capacity for more COVID patients. Officials there also said that there's still the option of moving COVID patients into other wings of hospitals and maybe even limit some nonessential procedures. But we'll just have to wait and see.

GREENE: All right. That's the situation in Texas, one of these states seeing a rise in new coronavirus cases. Ashley Lopez from member station KUT, thanks so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. As we just talked about, a lot of the new coronavirus cases we're seeing are young people.

MARTIN: Right. And this comes just as colleges and universities are drawing up plans to welcome students back to campus this fall. Apremae Mishra (ph) is a senior at the University of Kansas.

APREMAE MISHRA: Right now, it's kind of slipped from most people's minds. People don't really think it's a big deal.

GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education for us. Hi, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: So given this, what is college going to look like come fall?

NADWORNY: Well, everything I'm about to say could be totally different next week. You know, we're still weeks away from the first day of classes. But we are seeing plans. So there are a lot of hybrid solutions, so that's a mix of in-person and remote learning. For colleges attempting to go in-person, we're seeing early starts, no fall breaks. Colleges are reducing the number of students in dorms, so maybe it's just freshmen on campus. You know, it's going to look different. There won't be big events. Sports are a big question mark. Most campuses will require mask wearing and social distancing. That said, we've already seen a number of instances where positive cases have come from frat parties, bars around campus, athletic practices, so preventing a coronavirus outbreak is going to really come down to student behavior.

GREENE: Which is no small thing. I mean, I feel, like, you know, a lot of people go to college thinking it's going to be this very social place, social experience. So can you really change the way that students interact and rely on students to do that on their own?

NADWORNY: So there's a real divide here. You know, some say it's too hard to change a campus culture. Others think with the right motivation, maybe some pervasive social norms, it can be done. One thing to remember in all of this is that a large number of college students still have developing brains. Anna Song at UC Merced studies young adult behavior. And she says it's not that students don't care or that they're not informed. It really comes down to how they're wired.

ANNA SONG: If you ask kids what the risks are, they can tell you what the risks are. It's just they are highly sensitized to reward.

NADWORNY: And a reward like hanging out with your friends is pretty huge, I mean, especially if you've spent the summer and maybe even the spring away from them. You know, Song points to her own research on smoking habits to show that you can influence behavior if you use the right messaging. So colleges will need to find what students care about alongside modeling and promoting good behaviors.

GREENE: I mean, I'm sure students getting ready to theoretically return are already thinking about how different this might feel and new pressures on them. What are they telling you, the students?

NADWORNY: Well, I've talked to a lot of students. You know, many say they're willing to do whatever it takes to be on campus. But a lot of students acknowledge that it's going to be really hard to follow these new rules with social distancing and mask wearing. I talked to Jacques du Passage about this. He'll be a sophomore at Louisiana State University in the fall. And here's what he said.

JACQUES DU PASSAGE: I mean, to be on campus, to be around everybody, you know, that's definitely part of what you're paying for.

NADWORNY: Can you imagine a party where everyone is wearing masks?

DU PASSAGE: No, no, no. I don't think they would do that.

NADWORNY: You know, even student leaders who are kind of tasked with helping enforce these measures on campus, they say this is really unprecedented, and it's going to be a huge experiment in the fall.

GREENE: Yeah. But as you mentioned, I mean, we still have no idea what the fall will look like and where we'll be in this pandemic in just, you know, the coming weeks, months.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

GREENE: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

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GREENE: So after weeks of nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd, both parties in Congress agreed to make police reform a big priority.

MARTIN: Right. But agreeing to make it a priority is totally different than actually making it happen. Yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked a GOP bill arguing that it failed to meet the moment. The House is expected to pass legislation, but it's just drafted by Democrats, and it's looking less and less likely that Congress will come together and act even as the public broadly supports some kind of real change.

GREENE: All right. So let's bring in NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. And, Claudia, it sounds like a day of a lot of blame and finger pointing in the Senate. Take us through exactly what happened.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Yeah. So Democrats said they weren't happy with the lack of bipartisan talks on a Senate measure. This was led by Republicans. And they had made an offer to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a day before the vote to allow these sort of negotiations in exchange for allowing their bill to proceed. But McConnell said he was already fast-tracking this bill, and he had given Democrats the option to try and amend it. And he called their move political nonsense in a last-minute ultimatum used to block them and their progress on the effort. Tim Scott, he's the chamber's lone Black Republican. He sponsored the bill and he reminded his colleagues that George Floyd's death is what brought them together. Let's take a listen.

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TIM SCOTT: His murder is why the country has given us the opportunity to lead - to lead - and my friends on the other side just said no.

GRISALES: Scott flat out accused Democrats of not wanting to do anything now and punting to November when they hope to get something done if they perform well in the elections.

GREENE: All right. So you have Democrats, though, who are going to be doing something on the House side. There's a bill that's going to get a vote today. Where might this go? Is there any chance that this could lead to some sort of real reform or vote on something substantive?

GRISALES: In terms of a compromise, not so much. Democrats unveiled this bill earlier this month. It bans federal police from using chokeholds and other dangerous restraints. It lowers legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct. And it prohibits the use of no-knock federal warrants in drug-related cases. And unlike the Senate GOP bill, this measure has the votes it needs to pass the House floor with just Democrats. It isn't expected to draw much Republican support and the GOP has already said it's dead on arrival for the Senate.

GREENE: Claudia, what happened here? I mean, you had both parties saying - and it's not the first time we've heard this - but, like, this is going to be different. This moment demands action. We're going to come together. We're going to do something. And yet it didn't happen.

GRISALES: Exactly. Congress happened. We've seen this play out before. It's especially a factor in these highly partisan times in an election year. The odds have been stacked against some sort of bipartisan compromise. And Democrats, they're betting they're on the right side of this debate. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the vast majority of Americans want bans to the use of chokeholds, for example. So it's just been a theme we've heard. For example, here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talking to All Things Considered on who Americans will trust to come up with a good bill.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: They will say the civil rights organizations. Mitch McConnell has never talked about these issues at all until now when people are marching in the streets and some of his members said we have to do something. But doing something means doing something, not putting up a fig leaf and say, see, we have a bill, now pass it.

GRISALES: So, clearly, Democrats think public sentiment will be on their side.

GREENE: All right. So that is the story in Congress as Congress had said they would come together and take on police reform but has not happened so far. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thanks so much, Claudia.

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