Briefs: 'Once a friend got it, they got scared'

A woman wears a mask as she walks on campus at San Diego State University in San Diego. A coronavirus outbreak of more than 700 cases reported at San Diego State University has put all of San Diego County, with more than 3 million people, at risk of having to close indoor dining and shopping, many for a third time under California guidelines. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Associated Press

News briefs for September 22nd

The Associated Press

'I miss mommy': Families shattered by COVID forge new paths

Just four months had passed since Ramon Ramirez buried his wife and now, here he was, hospitalized himself with COVID-19. The prognosis was dire, and the fate of his younger children consumed him. Before ending his final video call with his oldest, a 29-year-old single mother of two, he had one final request: "Take care of your brothers."

Before long, he was added to the rolls of the pandemic's dead, and his daughter, Marlene Torres, was handed the crushing task of making good on her promise. Overnight, her home ballooned, with her four siblings, ages 11 to 19, joining her own two children, 2 and 8.

The emotional and financial demands are so overwhelming that Torres finds herself pleading to the heavens. "Please help me," she begs her parents. "Guide me."

As the U.S. approaches the milestone of 200,000 pandemic deaths, the pain repeats: An Ohio boy, too young for words of his own, who plants a kiss on a photo of his dead mother. A New Jersey toddler, months ago the center of a joyous, balloon-filled birthday, now in therapy over the loss of her father. Three siblings who lost both mom and dad, thrusting the oldest child, a 21 year old, into the role of parent to his sisters.

With eight in 10 American virus victims age 65 and older, it's easy to view the young as having been spared its wrath. But among the dead are an untold number of parents who've left behind children that constitute another kind of victim.

Campus outbreak brings uncertainty to San Diego's reopening

SAN DIEGO — The start of the semester at San Diego State University was, as always, a time for students to make and renew friendships on and off its urban campus and enjoy the beach and the city's unmatched August weather.

The coronavirus meant far fewer people returned to campus this year but the parties, cookouts and other festivities that mark the start of the fall semester went on as usual for a week or two, then abruptly stopped as infections quickly mounted. 

James Floyd, a freshman from Davis, California, noticed a mood change when classmates began getting tested. "Once a friend got it, they got scared," he said. 

There have been larger outbreaks at U.S. colleges but none may be more impactful than the one at San Diego State. 

California has seen remarkable recent success with the virus — the infection rate of 2.8 percent for the last week is the lowest since the pandemic began, and hospitalizations dropped to a level not seen since the first week of April. But the campus outbreak may put San Diego County over a state threshold for cases that mandates many businesses close or restrict indoor operations. 

For some, it would mark the third closure since California instituted the nation's first statewide shutdown order in March. 

It is a dizzying and discouraging turn of events for the county of 3.3 million residents that less than a month ago was the only one in Southern California with virus case numbers low enough to advance to a second level in the state's four-tiered system for reopening. 

The county argued that San Diego State cases — which have topped 800 among students — should be excluded from state tallies, like prisons are. Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected the proposal before it was even formally delivered.

"You can't isolate as if it's on an island, a campus community that is part of a larger community, so the answer is no," Newsom said last week.

Jon and Angie Weber said they won't comply with orders to stop serving patrons inside their restaurant. 

They closed their Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop in downtown San Diego on March 17 for three months, laying off all but one of 55 employees. A June reopening lasted 19 days until cases began spiking again in California and Newsom ordered another round of closures.

When San Diego businesses got permission last month to open more indoor operations with restrictions — 25 percent indoor capacity for restaurants — the Webers waited two weeks to train staff on sanitation measures and revamp its seasonal menu. When they opened Sept. 15, they learned the same day they would likely have to pull back again in a week unless there was a dramatic turnaround in San Diego.

Cowboy Star doesn't have room for sidewalk service. "It's demoralizing to open and close, open and close, hire and fire, hire and fire," Jon Weber said.

The Webers say they have exhausted savings and can't survive another closure. Without the restaurant they opened in 2008, they are unable to pay home loans.

"This is our life," Jon Weber said. "To walk away from it would be nearly impossible. It would be like walking away from your child."

Trump interviews Barrett while weighing a high court nominee

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump met with Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the White House as the conservative jurist emerged as a favorite to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, the start of a monumental Senate confirmation fight over objections from Democrats it's too close to the November election.

Trump said Monday he expects to announce his choice by week's end, before the burial next week of Ginsburg, the court's liberal icon, at Arlington National Cemetery. Democrats but few Republicans argue that her replacement should be decided by the winner on Nov. 3.

The president told reporters he would interview other candidates and might meet with Judge Barbara Lagoa when he travels to Florida later this week. Conversations in the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office have been increasingly focused on Barrett and Lagoa, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.

Barrett has long been favored by conservatives, and those familiar with the process said interest inside the White House seemed to be waning for Lagoa amid concerns by some that she did not have a proven record as a conservative jurist. Lagoa has been pushed by some aides who tout her political advantages of being Hispanic and hailing from the key political battleground state of Florida.

Barrett, 48, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, was a strong contender for the seat that eventually went to Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. At the time, Trump told confidants he was "saving" Barrett for Ginsburg's seat.

Who's a hypocrite? GOP, Dems debate past comments on court

WASHINGTON — The "H" word — hypocrisy — is suddenly in vogue at the Capitol as lawmakers debate how quickly to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that President Donald Trump's as-yet unnamed nominee will receive a vote on the Senate floor "this year," but has been careful not to say exactly when that will happen.

Democrats accuse the Kentucky Republican of blatant hypocrisy after McConnell refused to consider President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, eight months before the 2016 election.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor Monday to remind McConnell of his own words hours after the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. "The American people,'' McConnell said then, "should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice.'' The vacancy created by Scalia's death should not be filled until the election of a new president, he added. 

"No amount of sophistry can change what McConnell said then, and it applies even more so now — so much closer we are to an election,'' Schumer said Monday.

World powers set to take the stage, virtually, at UN debate

UNITED NATIONS  — The U.N.'s first virtual meeting of world leaders was set to start Tuesday with pre-recorded speeches from some of the planet's biggest powers, kept at home by the coronavirus pandemic that will likely be a dominant theme at their video gathering this year. 

Among those expected to speak Tuesday are U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose countries have reported the highest and second-highest coronavirus death tolls, respectively. Also on deck are President Xi Jinping of China, where the virus originated, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has raised international eyebrows with its rapid vaccine development.

After Monday's introductory session marking the U.N.'s 75th anniversary, the meeting's central event — speeches from each of its 193 member nations — start Tuesday. They traditionally serve as a platform for countries to tout accomplishments, seek support, stoke rivalries and express views on global priorities.

This year, the platform is online, and there is a pressing new priority in the pandemic that has killed over 960,000 people worldwide. 

"When we met in New York a year ago, no one could have imagined that 2020 would arrange such a powerful crash test for our world," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remarked in his video speech for Monday's anniversary commemoration.

UN diplomacy goes impersonal, but what's lost along the way?

Each year, for nearly seven decades, the spectacle has unfolded in grand and scripted fashion: Leader after world leader striding to the podium inside the colossal U.N. General Assembly chamber to uncork carefully calibrated speeches, posture publicly and speak the language of statecraft.

And each year, in the hallways of the United Nations and the hotels that surround it, intensive doses of more intimate, more genuine diplomacy take place in quiet conversations, in small bilateral meetings, in one-on-one huddles that gestate subtle understanding and, sometimes, even prevent wars.

This year, the spectacle part is still happening — remotely this time, on video, in prerecorded fashion, far from the madding diplomatic crowd. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, that other, more personal part of U.N. diplomacy is silently, deafeningly absent.

With it disappears something intangible but vital to the art of nations getting along: the in-person human touch. This is a time when it would really help the world to be able to talk to itself. And this week, on the socially distanced grounds of the United Nations, it can't.

"When you think about the U.N., that's the essence of it. In order for the game to work, you have to have empathy. You have to treat each other diplomatically. What does that look like when you remove the actual humanity from it?" wonders David Sax, author of "The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter."

Enormous California wildfire threatens desert homes near LA

LOS ANGELES — An enormous wildfire that churned through mountains northeast of Los Angeles and into the Mojave Desert was still threatening homes on Monday and was one of more than two dozen major fires burning across California. 

Five of the largest wildfires in state history are currently burning and more than 5,600 square miles (14,500 square kilometers) have been charred, an area larger than the state of Connecticut, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. 

At 165 square miles (427 square kilometers), the Bobcat Fire is one of the largest ever in Los Angeles County after burning for more than two weeks. It was only about 15% contained. 

Evacuation orders and warnings are in place for thousands of residents in foothill and desert areas, where semi-rural homes and a popular nature sanctuary have burned. Statewide, at least 23,000 people remain evacuated, Newsom said. 

No injuries have been reported for the fire about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. 

UK to impose tougher COVID-19 measures amid case spike

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to announce new restrictions on social interactions Tuesday as the government tries to slow the spread of COVID-19 before it spirals out of control.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told Sky News that pubs and restaurants across England will be ordered to close at 10 p.m. and people who can work from home will be encouraged to do so, reversing a government drive to get people back to their offices and other places of employment.

Gove said reducing "social mixing" was key to slowing the spread of the virus. He said it was impossible to say how long the restrictions would be in place.

"What we hope is we can take appropriate steps now, which mean that if we succeed in beating back the virus, then we will in the future be able to progressively relax them," Gove told the BBC. "But what I can't do is predict with absolute certainty." 

The prime minister is set to release further details when he speaks to the House of Commons at around 12:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) after meeting the Cabinet and the government's COBRA emergency committee. He will later deliver a televised address to the nation.

As rich nations struggle, Africa's virus response is praised

JOHANNESBURG — At a lecture to peers this month, John Nkengasong showed images that once dogged Africa, with a magazine cover declaring it "The Hopeless Continent." Then he quoted Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah: "It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity."

The coronavirus pandemic has fractured global relationships. But as director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nkengasong has helped to steer Africa's 54 countries into an alliance praised as responding better than some richer countries, including the United States.

A former U.S. CDC official, he modeled Africa's version after his ex-employer. Nkengasong is pained to see the U.S. agency struggle. In an interview with The Associated Press, he didn't name U.S President Donald Trump but cited "factors we all know."

While the U.S. nears 200,000 COVID-19 deaths and the world approaches 1 million, Africa's surge has been leveling off. Its 1.4 million confirmed cases are far from the horrors predicted. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 34,000 deaths are confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

"Africa is doing a lot of things right the rest of the world isn't," said Gayle Smith, a former administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She's watched in astonishment as Washington looks inward instead of leading the world. But Africa "is a great story and one that needs to be told."

Tropical Storm Beta makes landfall on Texas coast

HOUSTON — Tropical Storm Beta made landfall on the upper Texas coast late Monday night.

The storm made landfall just north of Port O'Connor, Texas. Early Tuesday Beta was 35 miles (56 kilometers) north northwest of the city with maximum winds of 40 mph (64 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Beta was moving toward the northwest near 3 mph (4 kilometers) and is expected to stall inland over Texas on Tuesday. It then will begin to move slowly toward the east-northeast later in the day when it will likely begin weakening. 

Beta will move inland over southeastern Texas through Wednesday and then over Louisiana and Mississippi Wednesday night through Friday. 

National Weather Service meteorologist Amaryllis Cotto in Galveston, Texas, says 6-12 inches (15-30 centimeters) of rain has fallen in the area with isolated amounts of up to 18 inches (45 centimeters). Dangerous flash flooding is expected through Wednesday, Cotto said.

Beta was the ninth named storm that made landfall in the continental U.S. this year. That tied a record set in 1916, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. This was the first time a Greek letter named storm made landfall in the continental U.S. Forecasters ran out of traditional storm names on Friday, forcing the use of the Greek alphabet for only the second time since the 1950s.

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