Adam Ozimek is a first-rate labor market economist, but also the part-owner of an excellent bar/restaurant/video arcade/bowling alley in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, called Decades — which, like so many bars and restaurants, has been hit hard by the coronavirus and economic crisis.
He reported on September 17 that while “revenues have moved up a little” from their Covid low point, they’re still at less than one-third of normal levels “despite takeout and a new big outdoor space.”
One problem is that to comply with state safety mandates, only half the lanes can be open at a given time. Another is that the big corporate event business has vanished, which is a big part of their normal mix. Decades’ owners were worried about the pandemic as far back as January, so they plowed all their 2019 profits into reducing debt. That, plus some help earlier in the year from the Paycheck Protection Program, has kept them afloat so far. But unless revenue picks up a lot and soon, they’re going to be in big trouble.
And they’re not alone. Seven bar/restaurant ventures in my DC neighborhood owned by the Hilton brothers, longtime anchors of the local nightlife scene, are shutting down indefinitely. The neighborhood falafel place, which used to rely on a steady stream of late-night drunk customers for revenue, has also shut down. Several scheduled restaurant openings don’t seem to be happening or are delayed.
According to Yelp, nationwide, 60 percent of Covid-related business closures are now permanent. And the impact is felt throughout the industry — from big cities like DC to smaller ones like Lancaster, from independent eateries to big publicly traded companies like the one that owns IHOP and Applebee’s or the one that owns Chili’s and Olive Garden.
Simply put, “reopening the economy” is not good enough to save America’s service industry.
But keeping them open is a huge risk to public health. As Anthony Fauci told Chris Hayes on September 17, “Bars are a really important place of spreading of infection. There’s no doubt about that.” Bar and restaurant transmission was a big factor in America’s uptick in Covid-19 cases this past summer, and it seems to be driving the increase in cases happening in Europe right now. As the weather gets colder and outdoor dining becomes infeasible across large swaths of America, the problems are only going to ratchet up — enough customers will behave cautiously to doom restaurants to failure, but just enough may behave irresponsibly to spread the virus.
The federal government needs to be much freer with bailout money, and in exchange demand more restrictions on how bars and restaurants can operate. Right now bailout-phobia is damaging the economy and public health at the same time — with no real upside other than making the labor market statistics look superficially better.
A prolonged pandemic will give us a smaller, worse restaurant sector
A restaurant has variable costs. If you sell less wine, you don’t need to buy as much wine. If you sell less food, you don’t need to buy as many raw ingredients. And if your restaurant never gets really full, you don’t need to pay as many cooks and servers.
But it also has fixed costs. If you borrowed money to launch your restaurant or buy your building, you need to pay interest on those loans. And if you rent your space, as is more common, you need to pay your landlord. Because these rents were set in the past in a competitive marketplace that was based on the assumption that restaurants would be packed at peak hours, it just doesn’t work to shrink the businesses. You make more revenue open than closed, and more with looser restrictions than with stringent ones. But fundamentally, as long as members of more vulnerable population subgroups are staying home and as least some young and healthy people are being more crowd-averse than usual, restaurants will have a big problem.
Indeed, to the extent that restaurants are still in business, it’s largely because tenants haven’t been paying their rent in full or because landlords have bargained for rent discounts. After all, there’s not much point in evicting a restaurant when there’s minimal demand for new restaurant leases.
Yet landlords have their own bills to pay, typically in the form of mortgages, and there are delivery-centric pizza chains and other businesses looking to expand. And eventually, if enough restaurants fail, the remaining ones will be able to survive by raising prices.
That emerging world of higher unemployment, higher prices, and reduced choice isn’t the one anyone wants. But all current American policymakers are doing to support the sector is encouraging risky public health behaviors.
You can’t eat food with a mask on
Early in the pandemic, public health authorities actively discouraged the use of masks by the public and messaged heavily in favor of hand-washing and cleaning surfaces. We have subsequently learned the good news that surface transmission seems rare in practice. As Emanuel Goldman writes in the August issue of The Lancet, messaging that suggests high risk of surface transmission “has been assumed on the basis of studies that have little resemblance to real-life scenarios.” In practice, the risks, though not nonexistent, are relatively low: Surface transmission “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.
Unfortunately, the practices Derek Thompson calls “hygiene theater,” where business owners or government officials go to great lengths to scrub and disinfect various surfaces, have become fairly entrenched.
Hygiene theater is appealing in part because it’s theatrical — you can see someone doing the scrubbing. But it’s also appealing because it can, in principle, be done everywhere. The fact that it’s not really necessary in most cases is probably good news, but it has helped bolster a false sense of security about how transmission actually happens.
By late March, evidence was piling up that the practice of mask-wearing in Asia was right all along, and on April 3, the CDC started to recommend mask use. The evidence in favor of masks has only gotten stronger since then, because as evidence of surface transmission has faded, evidence of “airborne” or aerosol transmission has gotten stronger.
The prior thinking on person-to-person transmission was that we only had to worry about relatively large droplets that fell rapidly to the ground, hence the emphasis on 6 feet of distance. Those droplets are an issue, but doctors and scientists are increasingly worried about smaller particles that travel farther. There’s a lot of dispute about exactly how to characterize this (see my Vox colleague Brian Resnick’s explainer for details), but the bottom line is, as Zeynep Tufekci writes, “we should focus as much on ventilation as we do on distancing, masks, and hand-washing, which every expert agrees are important.”
That brings us back to bars and restaurants. If you’re eating outside, you’re in a well-ventilated space. And according to public health guidance, as long as surfaces are reasonably clean and you’re not too close to anyone outside your household, you should be fairly safe.
But if you’re indoors unmasked, eating and chatting, no amount of disinfecting wipes is going to make things totally safe unless the restaurant happens to have high-grade ventilation. And while developing clear standards around ventilation, doing tests, and paying for upgrades is one possible solution, those efforts need to be focused on critical facilities like nursing homes and health care providers, not nice-to-haves like restaurants.
The whole “airborne” debate can get very complicated and technical, but the basic issue is simple: Indoor dining is very unsafe. And the outdoor dining that’s been used as a substitute is running out of steam as weather gets cooler across much of the country. For health reasons, we need fewer customers at these businesses. For economic reasons, we need them to survive. The fix is a huge bailout.
Cheap loans could save ailing businesses
Ozimek, the restaurateur/economist, developed a very sensible proposal months ago with John Lettieri of the Economic Innovation Group:
- Any qualifying business could get a loan worth the lesser of $5 million or 200 percent of 2019 expenses. The loan would be repaid over a 20-year period with a zero percent interest rate and a three-month grace period with no payments.
- Loans would be made and held by private banks, so restaurants could use their existing banking relationships, and the federal government would guarantee the loans and pay banks a modest fee for their trouble.
- The funds should be broadly available for legitimate business uses, including refinancing old loans, paying rent, paying staff, investing in equipment, or something else.
Companies could use the loan to replace old debt with cheaper new debt, cover rent, have cash available to invest in picnic tables or umbrellas, for example, to facilitate outside dining, and then keep selling food with revenue covering variable costs. This wouldn’t save every restaurant or every restaurant job, but it would save a lot of them and make it more economically tolerable to save a lot of lives.
To get the cash, restaurants should have to close their dining rooms to customers and subsist on delivery, takeout, and outdoor dining unless community prevalence of Covid-19 is at some designated low level. There could also be a provision for establishing ventilation and air purification protocols that are considered sufficient, with of course loan money available for doing upgrades.
Shutting down more stuff would be a huge bummer, and obviously nobody in politics really wants to do it. But America’s restaurant sector isn’t going to survive the winter in healthy conditions no matter what restrictions we place on it. The industry needs a bailout, and fast. Once we reconcile ourselves to that reality, then doing the right thing for public health becomes a no-brainer. Every week of delay costs lives while doing little to actually save businesses.
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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year
Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.
Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.
So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.
Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.
Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)
During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.
Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)
Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.
Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)
Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.
Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)
This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.
Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)
If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.
Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)
With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.
Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)
The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.
Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)
Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.
Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.
The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.
The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.
The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.
Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)
We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.
Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)
The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.
Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)
The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.
Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)
Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.
Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)
Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.
Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.
Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)
With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.
Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)
Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.
Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)
The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.
Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)
The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.
In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.
Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.
It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.
Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.
Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.
Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.
The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”
At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.
On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.
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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.
From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.
“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.
The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.
Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.
Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.
Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
Calls for urgent reduction of violence
Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.
Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.
There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.
1/4 I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.
But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.
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