TURBULENCE — Over the weekend, I flew with my two toddlers for the first time since last summer. On that Fourth of July weekend in 2020, in what turned out to still be the early days of the pandemic, there was no federal mask mandate in airports, though most airlines had their own mask requirements. Even though I flew on a holiday weekend, my flight last year turned out to be smooth and eerily pleasant.
This Memorial Day weekend, our experience was totally different. My two toddlers and I squeezed into a crowded Delta plane. They nearly spilled orange juice on the passenger sitting next to us. Staff were brusque in their interactions — pre-Covid, flight attendants always managed to help me board the plane, sometimes offering to hold a baby while I settled into our seats. This year, no one helped us board — airline staff were more concerned with making sure my older son and I had our masks on correctly.
We’re firmly in the next era of pandemic flying, as my trip revealed. Passenger volumes are quickly approaching pre-pandemic levels. Flights are packed. No more empty middle seats. As the summer travel season starts, millions of newly vaxxed Americans are traveling to see family and friends or just escape more than a year of quarantining. Nearly 2 million people flew on Friday, matching passenger volumes from early March 2020, but still down about 600,000 passengers compared to Memorial Day weekend 2019.
But the virus threat isn’t over for unvaccinated travelers. And airlines are trying to bridge two contradictory messages. They want to assure passengers that planes are safe, but also to continue to be on high alert.
This limbo state has created a noxious travel atmosphere. The threat to flight attendants has gotten the most attention: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged passengers Sunday to respect flight crews after a sharp rise in assaults, mostly related to attempts to enforce mask mandates. Southwest said that it wouldn’t resume alcohol service after a passenger traveling from Sacramento to San Diego assaulted a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. American Airlines is also delaying a return to drinking in the main cabin after the incident.
Punching a flight attendant is unforgivable, and less violent outbursts from rude passengers don’t need to be tolerated, either. But even compliant people are frustrated and confused by the counterproductive overabundance of caution in the skies right now. Airline Covid rules, like outdoor mask mandates, are not always rooted in the realities of virus transmission. They’re still handing out sanitizing wipes when you get on the plane. A nice touch, perhaps, but wiping down your armrest and tray table won’t stop you from getting Covid. And if masks are so important, why are we allowed to take them off to eat? A friend I met in Atlanta this weekend for a walk said that on his flight from San Francisco, Delta asked passengers to re-mask in between bites and sips.
Traveling with children was never fun. But the pandemic has made it even more challenging. Ali Rizvi, a journalist who has done freelance work for POLITICO, told Nightly that a Southwest crew member refused to let his family board a flight in early May to Houston from Washington D.C. because their recently turned 2-year-old couldn’t keep his mask on properly. Rizvi and his wife are vaccinated and were traveling to meet family for Eid celebrations after a long separation. They had their masks on, but struggled to get their toddler to wear a mask.
“We’ve been shocked and reeling from the ordeal,” Rizvi said in an email. “The airline displayed such a lack of empathy and understanding over what parents go through to even get the courage to plan a trip with a toddler.”
It’s also yet another example of pandemic guidelines followed to an illogical extreme. Vaxxed, masked parents struggling to get a 2-year-old to wear a mask isn’t the same as an adult who blatantly refuses to wear a mask for political reasons. But airline staff don’t differentiate. The rule also ignored the realities of virus transmission — toddlers just aren’t super spreaders. Rizvi said that, while they were struggling, Southwest staff peppered them with comments like “the pandemic is real.” Since the trip, his toddler has refused to wear a mask at all, he said.
Southwest told Nightly that the airline crew was just trying to adhere to federal law. “We worked with the family to gain compliance prior to their flight’s departure but ultimately, we were not successful,” wrote Southwest spokesperson Brandy King in an email about Rizvi’s situation.
She also pointed out that the federal mask mandate has been extended through Sept. 13, 2021.
— DeSantis signs bill banning transgender women and girls from sports: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law today a policy banning transgender athletes from playing girls and women’s sports that opponents have condemned as deeply discriminatory against transgender athletes and students. Florida’s new law establishes that women’s sports from middle school through college, including intramurals and club teams, are limited to participants based on the sex listed on a student’s birth certificate.
— State to gather diplomats’ health details in response to Havana syndrome: The State Department is rolling out a voluntary new program to gather diplomats’ baseline health information before they head to overseas posts, according to a State Department cable reviewed by POLITICO. It’s part of the department’s response to a wave of mysterious injuries that have harmed scores of U.S. officials in recent years — known as “Havana syndrome.”
— Moderna seeks full FDA vaccine approval: Moderna has asked the FDA for full approval of its coronavirus vaccine in people 18 and older. The company is the second vaccine maker to seek full approval from U.S. regulators, which would allow it to market the shot directly to consumers. Full approval also makes it easier for schools, employers and the military to require inoculation against Covid-19.
— White House: Ransomware attack on major meat processing company ‘likely’ from Russia: A ransomware attack hitting the world’s largest meat processing company, JBS, was from a “criminal organization likely based in Russia,” the company told the White House. “The White House is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and delivering the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said today.
— Biden freezes oil leases in Alaska refuge pending new environmental review: The suspension of the leases follows Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order that identified “alleged legal deficiencies” in the original leasing program and put in place a temporary moratorium on any oil- and gas-related activities in the refuge. The executive order also left open the possibility that the department would undertake a new environmental review to address potential legal flaws in the program.
CONTINENTAL ARMY? It’s time for the EU to become a global military power — and for the U.S. to stop thwarting Europe’s ambitions on defense. That’s according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, the Washington think tank with close ties to the Biden administration.
The report, obtained by POLITICO ahead of its release Wednesday, urges Biden to encourage the EU to develop hard-power military capabilities and calls on him to abandon decades of opposition to EU defense integration by previous U.S. leaders, under the guise of preventing wasteful duplication with NATO — which remains orthodox thinking for most American military commanders, and even for many EU governments, chief Brussels correspondent David Herszenhorn writes.
The report, published just 10 days before Biden makes his first trip abroad as president for G-7 and NATO summits, calls out Washington for hounding European allies to spend more on their militaries to reach NATO’s 2 percent of GDP spending target, while preventing the EU from pursuing initiatives that would save money and improve fighting readiness. Instead, it says NATO is left to coordinate a “hodgepodge” of national forces.
Nightly asked you: What pandemic shortages have you seen in your community? Your select, lightly edited responses are below:
“As a researcher working in a biology lab, I’ve seen extended shortages in basic supplies like pipette tips and centrifuge tubes. Some of my colleagues have put off experiments for weeks or months as the requisite supplies are out of stock or backordered. Some of it was due to supply chain disruptions, though I’m sure a lot of equipment was also rightfully diverted to health care causes such as protective equipment for frontline workers and Covid-19 testing kits.” — Steven Cheng, graduate student, Cambridge, Mass.
“Poor availability of mountain bike tires in Hawaii and the mainland.” — Elizabeth O’Keefe, retired, Hilo, Hawaii
“Kitchen appliances! I need a new dishwasher, and I chose the brand that can deliver in two months. My first choice has a six-month wait, and I just don’t want to hand-wash the dishes for the four extra months.” — Mary Iannucci, paralegal, San Diego
“I am chairman of the board and president of the local rural electrical cooperative in north Idaho. We have the most requests for new services in our 86-year history. People are moving here because it’s a wonderful place to live and telecommute. However, we are having trouble obtaining transformers, so much so that we are recovering those that have been deployed, but are not in use. We cannot obtain enough conduit for underground wires. Concrete is in short supply (used for many things, including transformer pedestals). Worse, if we find what we need, we cannot find drivers to haul it to us.” — Steve Elgar, Sandpoint, Idaho
“Fresca (in any flavor) has been intermittently available. I haven’t been able to get it in cans in a year, and 2-liter bottles are only sometimes available.” — Beverly Carey, federal procurement officer, Highland Park, Colo.
“Canning jar lids! I have been making jam with summer fruits for 40 years. Today it was time to turn a heaping flat of strawberries into jam. I have plenty of jars but need new lids. Similar problem last summer. Can’t help but think there are wannabe survivalists who thought they would become home canners but never did who have stashed away unopened jars and/or lids. Just sayin’!” — Karel Robertson, retired, Bethesda, Md.
“Canned cat food! I’m not sure the same is true of dog food, because I don’t have a dog. But my cat’s favorite canned foods (Fancy Feast and Friskies) are still very hard to find around here in Southern California. Sometimes I have to hit two or three grocery stores to find His Majesty’s preferred flavors. Mainstream news stories on this shortage are a little hard to find, but pet food industry publications have confirmed this is actually a thing, caused by a perfect storm of various elements. His Majesty is most displeased.” — Mary Platt, university art museum director, Orange, Calif.
TO THE MOON OR STUCK ON THE LAUNCH PAD? It’s big. But Wall Street wants it to be even bigger. In the latest POLITICO Dispatch, financial services reporter Kellie Mejdrich reports on an effort to open up access to Bitcoin investment — and explains why it’s facing opposition in Washington.
‘GREAT NATIONS … COME TO TERMS WITH THEIR DARK SIDES’ — Biden took part today in a remembrance of one of the nation’s darkest and largely forgotten acts of racial violence, calling on Americans to come to terms with the nation’s “dark side” and to never forget the killing of hundreds of Black men, women and children in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn’t impact us today, because it still does impact us today,” Biden said, speaking at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla. “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know, and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides.”
Biden — the first president to participate in a commemoration of the destruction of the flourishing community known as Black Wall Street — called for a moment of silence in honor of the 300 Black people who were killed a century ago.
“May their souls rest in peace,” Biden said before bowing his head.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot,” the president said, looking back up at the crowd. “This was a massacre.”
In the speech, Biden also said he has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration’s push for voting rights legislation.
Be sure not to miss: Eugene Daniel’s piece from the ground in Tulsa on a woman whose great-grandmother survived the Tulsa race massacre and is now pushing the White House on reparations.
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