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The false hope of reopening is killing small businesses

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Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s main attractions. Home to more than 70 businesses, the complex on the shore of Lake Michigan is normally filled with crowds on a summer day.

“Navy Pier is rocking, there’s people everywhere, there’s excitement, there’s fireworks, it’s a good time at Navy Pier,” said Stephanie Hart, the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, which has two locations, one on the South Side of Chicago and the other at Navy Pier. This year, she says, “it just wasn’t the same.”

The pier shut down when the pandemic hit in March, and then reopened in June. According to Payal Patel, its communications director, attendance was just 15 percent this summer from the one before. It shuttered again after Labor Day and now plans to reopen in 2021.

“It was heartbreaking, not just about my business, but to see Navy Pier in that kind of condition,” Hart said.

During the pandemic, much of the conversation around small businesses has focused on lockdowns and reopening — just let things open back up again, the line of thinking goes, and everything will be okay. But the reality of the situation is that for many businesses, that’s just not the case. According to Yelp, more than 160,000 US businesses on its platform have closed since March 1, nearly 100,000 of them permanently. Data from Homebase, a team management software company, shows that the number of hours worked at small businesses is still about 20 percent below January.

“People are not comfortable going to public places yet. We’ve tried to put so many safety measures in place, but all of that, essentially, is not going to matter if people will not come,” Patel said.

You can’t force business as usual when life is not. Many businesses already operating with low margins pre-pandemic can’t survive under health-related restrictions that, while incredibly important, make staying afloat extremely difficult.

Beyond the restrictions, there are also broader issues afoot. With a deadly virus still spreading, many Americans simply aren’t falling over themselves to go out and consume. Millions of people have lost their jobs or are afraid they might, so they’re not as eager to spend their money on things they don’t perceive as necessary.

That leaves small businesses fighting for their lives.

Eric Huebner, who owns a gift shop called Best Gift Idea Ever Chicago at Navy Pier, has pulled out every stop he can think of to keep his business running. He set up a GoFundMe page to try to raise money, applied for a Paycheck Protection Act loan, and once he began collecting unemployment benefits, he put some of that money toward his business. He started selling his products via Facebook, too.

When the pier reopened, at first his sales were decent; he estimates he took in 60 to 70 percent of normal revenue. But then at the end of July, business fell off a cliff. “A $900 day could go to a $90 day,” he said.

Policies designed to help small- and medium-sized businesses are insufficient, in no small part because of this promise of reopening that fails to comprehend the depth and length of the crisis many of them are facing. Reopening the economy can’t save small business, and the false hope that it can is part of what is killing it.

“Customer is king in the United States, so what they want, they will get, but they don’t want anything right now,” said Claudia Sahm, the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and former Federal Reserve economist. “They can’t afford it, or they don’t want to go get it, or something’s holding them back.”

Consumers are spending less and spending differently

Even before pandemic-related lockdowns took hold nationwide, consumers began to change their behavior. They started steering clear of restaurants and staying off of airplanes. Then, the lockdowns resulted in a huge decline in traffic across industries — restaurants and bars, travel and hospitality, fitness and beauty — and subsequent layoffs. During the spring, you heard some economists and experts talking about a V-shaped recovery, the idea that just as quickly as the economy had contracted, it would also be able to recover. But the thing is, you can’t turn the economy back on like a light switch, especially when the virus isn’t under control.

Some people, including small-business owners, experts, and government leaders, are “focused too much on the lockdowns by themselves and not the actual risk of the virus, which is a major disruption to business,” said Adam Ozimek, an economist at the freelance platform Upwork and formerly of Moody’s Analytics.

Ozimek has experienced the problem firsthand: He is one of the owners of Decades, a sort of upscale entertainment complex with a bowling alley, arcade, restaurant, and bar, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After shutting down in March, Decades is now doing outdoor dining and takeout. It has some indoor activity within health guidelines, too. Still, the business is seeing weak demand. It’s at just 28 percent of revenue from last year.

Decades got a PPP loan, which is a forgivable loan if the business spends it to keep workers on the payroll for a certain amount of time, and a grant from the state. It’s still in the red. “We ran out of cash in September, and now we’re putting money into the business,” Ozimek said.

According to data from OpenTable, which tracks restaurant reservations and traffic, seated dining in the US is still down more than 50 percent year-over-year. A survey the company did of in the US and Canada found a quarter of respondents say they dine out once a week, but it’s still not “anywhere near as often as they did before — and it’s going to be a long time before they do,” said OpenTable CEO Debby Soo in an email. She also warned that things are about to get worse, not better: “The colder months will present new challenges for restaurants, especially considering the majority of diners view outdoor dining as safer.”

OpenTable has forecast one in four restaurants could permanently close due to Covid-19, though it notes that in countries such as Japan and Germany, which have done a better job of controlling the pandemic, the industry has rebounded.

Yelp found that while consumer interest (defined as US reviews, photos, and page views) has increased since the pandemic first set in in late March, compared this time last year, it’s still down about 33 percent. The same goes for gyms.

Erin Suggs, a hairstylist in California, recently told me that when her salon reopened for a while in the spring, business was much slower than it was in normal times — despite seeing the protests with people declaring they wanted a haircut on TV. “I was having cancellations all over the place,” she said.

The way consumers are and aren’t spending their money is not necessarily a linear story. Some of what’s changed is what people are spending on. Instead of going to the restaurant, they’re going to the grocery store. Instead of buying a dress at the local boutique, they’re ordering sweatpants on Amazon. Spending so much time at home has made people more interested in home-improvement projects, meaning trips to Home Depot.

While there was a steep decline in personal consumption expenditures in March and April, it rebounded in subsequent months. One issue still bearing out in the data is the effect of the additional $600 in unemployment insurance benefits to people who lost their jobs, which was in place during much of the spring and summer but came to an end on July 31. US consumer spending started to slow down in August, and as Reuters notes, spending on services is still 10 percent below where it was in before Covid-19 hit.

“This is a big deal,” Sahm said. “If services don’t come back, we’re really screwed, because that’s a big part of GDP.”

The Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker out of Harvard shows that total consumer spending across the US is still down by 7 percent compared to January, but that varies significantly across sectors. Restaurants and hotels are down more than 25 percent, transportation nearly 50 percent, entertainment and recreation 60 percent.

Businesses are experiencing the pandemic differently

Ruben Alonso III, the president of AltCap, a community development financial institution based in Kansas City that has supported numerous small businesses throughout the pandemic, told me the effects of the pandemic “was all over the board” locally. “You saw some businesses struggling and closing even and others flourishing.”

Not all small businesses are alike, even in the same industry, and whether or not they’re able to survive depends on a lot of factors — where they are, what they do, whether they’re able to pivot, how much debt and risk their owners are and are not willing to take on. Some of their fate is in their own hands, but not all of it.

Before the pandemic, Kiffany Bosserman’s company, Cottontale, largely entailed selling all-natural cotton candy at events. Once Covid-19 kicked in and events were shut down, she “pivoted hard,” investing in a dessert tricycle to pop up at local restaurants and coffee houses. Now, she’s in the process of setting up a storefront.

She’s gotten a loan from AltCap with a zero percent interest rate for the first year and thinks that will be enough to keep going, but it’s not easy. The corporate events that were the business’ bread and butter aren’t coming back fast, and while smaller events are happening, people prefer pre-packaged desserts to the live service. “We hustled and figured it out,” said Bosserman, who runs the business with her husband. “We’re not going out to eat all the time, but we made the sacrifices.”

Around reopening, some businesses saw a pretty immediate recovery thanks to pent-up demand, but eventually, that diminished and things evened out. “People are still coming in, even though they’re still working at 50 percent capacity, but that demand is not quite the level it was pre-Covid,” said Megan Crook, advancement and external affairs officer at AltCap.

Sunny Burden, who works at a pizza restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, told me that business “plummeted” around the time they started indoor dining. “It’s kind of just now in the past month, not even, starting to kind of pick back up, there are tourists coming through,” she said.

For some businesses, there are workarounds for the situation — they can have few workers, reduce inventory, and find ways to run more efficiently. But that doesn’t solve the problem for, say, a gym that has invested in machinery and still has to pay rent, or a restaurant that even running at its leanest still can’t get customers in the door.

Trophy Bar in Brooklyn seemed as well poised as any small business to survive the pandemic — business was good pre-pandemic, it got a PPP loan for the holdover, and once restaurants and bars in New York were allowed to reopen with outdoor seating, it had a sizable yard to put back to use.

But following legal guidelines upon reopening meant Trophy could accommodate just eight tables safely and had to close by 11 pm. About half of its staff didn’t want to come back, either because they’d moved away or were afraid for their safety. Many New Yorkers have left the city or are hesitant to get out and about again, too. “Every time it rained in our backyard, there went our business,” said Mandy Misagal, who started Trophy in 2007 along with two business partners.

Ultimately, Trophy couldn’t cut it. It closed its doors on August 30. “Every turn we took, it was like, what if we end up in way more debt? That’s the scary thing about it,” Misagal said. “The choice is pulling the plug completely on your business or being in debt by the end of it.”

The economy is a network of causes and effects, and nothing happens in isolation. Jed Kolko, chief economist at the jobs website Indeed, pointed to the effects work-from-home trends have on businesses. Overall, nationally, Indeed’s jobs postings are about 19 percent below where they were last year (at the worst, they were down by 40 percent), but metro areas are the ones that have seen the biggest declines — places like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. “In those places, retail and other local services are especially suffering,” he said. “If people are working at home, they are not going out and spending the way that they used to.”

Adair Morse, an associate professor of finance at the Berkeley Hass School of Business, said that policymakers’ failure to understand small business as a heterogeneous group led to failures on how they set up to help them. For example, her research looking at Oakland, California, found that PPP loans were effective in keeping microbusinesses with just a handful of employees afloat, but for businesses with more workers, that was less often the case. Many minority-owned businesses were shut out of the loans or struggled to get them as well. ”We really need to think about the size of small businesses and how it can support the different classes,” Morse said.

This is a long-term problem — but not a permanent one

The belief that reopening would be a panacea for small business was wrong. That belief is also part of what is making it so hard for them to make it through. Policies to support small businesses were designed for short-term dips, not the long, deep economic slog we’re in for.

“We just didn’t understand that it wasn’t about just getting through it and then figuring out how small businesses would recover from that couple-month shock, it’s this lingering shock that their revenues are nowhere near what they used to be,” Morse said.

Morse, who helped structure California’s small business rebuilding fund, said she believes the best course of action would be to focus on supporting small businesses that are showing a capacity to recover, ones that are not necessarily doing spectacularly, but ones that aren’t doing half-bad. “When you keep some places from falling, you’re able to have spillovers to have other ones survive,” she said.

Ozimek warned that focusing too hard on businesses doing okay during the current moment risks leaving behind businesses that were just fine ahead of the pandemic and will be fine once again once the virus is under control. He and John Lettieri from the think tank Economic Innovation Group crafted a business relief proposal later included in a legislative package put forth by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Susan Collins.

“We need to help business make it through this temporary adjustment to get back to normal in the future,” he said. “Grocery stores are not always going to be this busy. Home Depot is not always going to be this busy.”

There are multiple policy-related solutions that could help small businesses in a more sustained way — grants, a bailout, or low- or zero-interest, long-term loans that they’ll have a lot of time to pay back.

“The best, as an economist, that I can think of doing is coming up with a product that is an incredibly affordable interest rate,” Morse said.

Small businesses are a vital part of the American economy. But we can’t expect consumers to do it — many people are afraid of getting sick and of losing their jobs, and they’re just not living their lives as they normally would. I love sitting in dive bars playing cards with friends, but if you open my favorite bar up tomorrow while Covid-19 is still out there, I’m not going.

Part of Navy Pier’s calculation in shutting down entirely is that it hopes that will help it and the businesses it houses survive by limiting operational expenses. That still leaves everyone figuring out what to do in the meantime.

Huebner has an invitation to put up a pop-up store at Chelsea Market in New York for a few months this fall. Navy Pier has laid off more than half of its staff, and many of those who are still working are on partial furlough. Hart is throwing her energy into her main bakery location on Chicago’s South Side, making adjustments to the space to make it safer, narrowing her menu, and building a website to beef up online sales and pickups. “There’s a ton of people who just don’t want to come in, so it’s not just about what we offer, it’s about what people prefer,” she said.

She is also working with other restaurateurs and businesses in the area to make it more of a collective attraction for visitors. They built a boardwalk and are putting together events. The message: “Eat, play, socialize, relax, wear a mask.”


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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

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.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

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.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

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.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

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.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

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.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

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.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

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.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

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.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

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.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

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.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

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.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

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.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

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.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

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.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

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.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

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.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

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.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

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.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

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.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

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.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

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.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

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.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

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.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

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.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

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.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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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.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

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.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

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

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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.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

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.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

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.

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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