2020
April
02
Thursday

Today’s stories explore presidential messaging, efforts to shelter California’s homeless residents, a bold climate proposal, a movement in limbo, and a Monitor film critic’s picks for escapist flicks. But first, a tale of a new connection made in isolation.

When Billy Collins read the Monitor’s story about New York shut-in Carmella Parry and Poems on Wheels, he says he was stirred by her joy-filled enthusiasm for the poems she received with her delivered meals.

The former U.S. poet laureate sent Ms. Parry a copy of his book “The Rain in Portugal.” “I just thought a book of poems might be a nice surprise for Carmella,” Mr. Collins told the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius, who wrote about Ms. Parry. “I mean, the entire city is locked down. That image that we have of the elderly living in apartments in New York, and just the kind of loneliness of so many of them – she’s kind of had her own locked down, shelter-in-place life, a shelter within this larger viral shelter now.” 

Ms. Parry, at 94, has lived in the same fourth-floor walk-up for 70 years. Her sisters live nearby but are also homebound. They talk every day by phone, and Ms. Parry sends them cards with lines she composes.

Mr. Collins included a note wishing her the best. “She’s become kind of a paradigm of what’s happening to a lot of us that are confined now.”

He notes how Wordsworth once hoped personal lives would be marked by “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” 

“The ‘unremembered’ ingredient is the key,” says the author of “The Lanyard.” “The idea is to forget your good deeds, and that is done when your kind acts come so naturally you don’t remember them.”

A quick note before moving onto today’s stories: Be sure to check out Laurent Belsie’s story from yesterday on the newly unemployed. The story has been updated to reflect the latest unemployment figures released today.

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1. White House coronavirus briefings: How much is must-see TV?

How does one best convey information during a public health crisis? That’s a question media outlets are grappling with as they cover the president’s daily briefings, which tend to mix valuable information with inaccurate assertions.

Yvonne

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Within the media, debate is swirling around whether cable networks should televise President Donald Trump’s daily briefings live. They are often long – well over an hour – and contain a mix of valuable information, particularly from the scientists on the White House’s coronavirus task force, as well as misstatements and grandstanding. 

CNN and MSNBC, which lean liberal, have taken to showing only parts of the briefing, cutting away when it is deemed to be off-topic. On Wednesday, CNN skipped the first portion when Mr. Trump opened by touting an “enhanced counternarcotics operation,” a decision anchor John King called “shameless.”

The network did the same the day before, declining to show the president’s opening remarks, which had highlighted, in a notably somber tone, projections of between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the virus in the United States. 

The network’s decision that day seemed “a little petty,” says Kelly McBride, chair of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

But she understands the hesitation over giving the president unlimited airtime. One alternative, she suggests, would be to “summarize the entire press conference and edit it down to key points.” 

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White House coronavirus briefings: How much is must-see TV?

Which statement best describes the daily White House briefings in the age of coronavirus?

(A) They are fact-based and analytical; (B) They convey questionable or even false information; (C) They are vital to the public interest; (D) They are opportunities for grandstanding; or (E) All of the above.

The answer is (E). Praise and blame for this daily stew of essential public service and political reality TV sit at the feet of both President Donald Trump and the reporters asking him questions. 

The ethics here are profound. Lives are on the line, and everyone involved plays an important role – the president and his team, journalists, and ultimately, the public, which must follow safe practices and figure out fact from fiction.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

“Everybody has a responsibility here,” says Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

The fact that President Trump is up for reelection, with Election Day just seven months away, only adds to the drama.

Within the media, debate is swirling around whether cable networks should televise Mr. Trump’s briefings live. These daily sessions are often long – well over an hour – and contain a mix of valuable information, particularly from the scientists on the White House’s coronavirus task force, and diversions that can include unproductive exchanges between Mr. Trump and antagonists in the press corps.

The news that Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the task force, now needs a security detail reinforces the central role of information in this crisis. Dr. Fauci, known to correct Mr. Trump at times in public, has both fervent admirers and critics. And there’s no doubt that when Dr. Fauci speaks at briefings, people pay attention.

CNN and MSNBC, which lean liberal, have taken to showing only parts of the briefing live, cutting away when it is deemed to be off-topic. On Wednesday, CNN skipped the first portion when Mr. Trump opened by touting an “enhanced counter-narcotics operation,” a phalanx of military advisers flanking him at the podium. 

Some would call the decision to highlight a tangential topic “shameless,” CNN anchor John King said. “This is a coronavirus task force briefing.” 

After the narcotics discussion ended, and the actual coronavirus briefing started, with the usual cast at Mr. Trump’s side – including Drs. Fauci and Deborah Birx – CNN showed the briefing live. 

The network did the same the day before, declining to show the president’s opening remarks, then going live with the experts. On that day, Mr. Trump had highlighted, with a notably somber tone, projections of between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the virus in the United States. 

The decision to skip the president’s opening remarks on Tuesday seemed “a little petty,” says Kelly McBride, chair of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

But she understands the hesitation over giving the president unlimited air time, and suggests an alternative, including transparency with viewers. 

“You can summarize the entire press conference and edit it down to key points,” Ms. McBride says. “You certainly have the prerogative to run the whole thing. And if you’re going to run a portion of it live, you have to tell your audience why you think that portion live is more important than any of the other portions live.” 

A love-hate relationship 

Some media critics have pleaded for TV networks to stop running the president’s briefings altogether. They are, in effect, a substitute for the campaign rallies he can no longer hold, and contain exaggerations and lies, writes Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post. Examples: The president argued that tests for the virus were readily available when they weren’t. Ditto a nationwide website that Google would roll out “very quickly,” which it hasn’t. 

Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, has a different take. The effort to suppress attention to the briefings reflects a “paternalistic mindset” toward the public, he writes. And besides, it won’t work. Trump-friendly Fox News will keep showing the briefings, as does C-SPAN. Live streams are all over the web. 

The backstory to Mr. Trump’s dealings with the media is crucial to understanding the current state of play. More than a year ago, the Trump White House stopped holding daily press briefings. Disdain for the press corps was palpable. Mr. Trump pivoted instead to “chopper talk” gaggles with reporters as he headed to Marine One for trips out of town, or visits with the press corps on Air Force One.

These regular interactions reinforced the notion that Mr. Trump sees himself as his own best press secretary, going back to his days as a real estate developer who would call reporters under an assumed name to advocate for himself. 

Mr. Trump has long had a love-hate relationship with the press. He hates being confronted, but he loves the attention media bring. These conflicting impulses have come to the fore amid the COVID-19 crisis, and are most evident in the daily press conferences. 

“You see a little bit of everything in these briefings,” says William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University and conservative blogger.

“You see straightforward information, you see the science, you see Trump as he describes himself, as the cheerleader for the nation,” Professor Jacobson says. “You also see his interaction with the media.”

He agrees Mr. Trump loves the attention, but he also sees reporters looking for “that sound bite, that gotcha moment.” The president is smart enough to sense it and doesn’t want to give it to them, Mr. Jacobson says. 

Confrontation vs. information

One of Mr. Trump’s biggest antagonists is CNN’s Jim Acosta, whose White House press credential was revoked temporarily in 2018 after he refused to relinquish the microphone at a press conference. At Monday’s press briefing, Mr. Trump called on Mr. Acosta with a “here we go.” The CNN reporter read a series of statements by Mr. Trump, going back several weeks, that seemed to play down the severity of the looming crisis – such as “just stay calm, it will all go away.” 

Mr. Trump insisted all the statements were true, then attacked CNN. The exchange was highly predictable, and didn’t elicit any new information. It also furthered Mr. Trump’s longstanding claim that the media are out to get him. 

“I’m not sure we need members of the media trying to provoke confrontation when the nation needs calm and information,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “We don’t need reporters seeking a ‘moment’ to stand out.”

Still, he says, journalists at the briefings are doing a fine job, and serving effectively as surrogates for the public.

“The problem is that these become rhetorical-slash-theatrical events,” Professor McCall says. “We do see some grandstanding from Trump, but that’s his nature. He got elected by being outspoken and by being grandiose.”

Ultimately, says Ms. Culver, the media ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, it’s a critically important time for TV networks to be exercising their editorial judgment. And it’s a time for journalists to show their mettle in serving the public interest.

“Are we as citizens getting what we need from these briefings when they’re displayed live,” she asks, “as opposed to journalists performing the function they’re supposed to perform, which is to verify and fact-check information before it’s shared?”

In the end, Ms. Culver notes, everyone – the president, the press, the public – shares the same goal: to act individually and collectively to maximize the survival rate amid the biggest viral threat facing the planet in more than a century.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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2. Housing crisis or health crisis? On the streets of California it's both.

Housing the most vulnerable of California’s homeless people is a humane response to a public health crisis. It could also uncork solutions to a chronic housing shortage after the pandemic is over. 

Yvonne

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California has the nation’s largest homeless population. Staying in shelters or in cars and parks, they are more likely than residents living in permanent housing to have underlying health problems. That puts them at heightened risk during a pandemic, putting additional strain on medical and city services. 

Local officials are scrambling to move thousands of homeless people into converted shelters and locate hotel rooms to quarantine the most vulnerable people and those who may already have COVID-19. It’s proving an immense challenge. Still, the crisis is also clearing away barriers that would normally hinder progress: Resources are being freed up, regulations eased, and communities are pitching in. 

How California responds now to the needs of homeless people may shape long-term thinking about what has been missing so far in its response to its housing crisis. People who work with the homeless population hope this spirit can be extended after the crisis abates. 

“As bad and unfortunate and uncertain as this pandemic is, it’s renewing a sense of crisis response and urgency that we have been looking for across the whole system,” says Heidi Marston of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.  

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1. Housing crisis or health crisis? On the streets of California it's both.

Propelled by the novel coronavirus, California is rushing to shelter thousands of its most vulnerable residents – homeless people who live outdoors and can’t “stay at home” to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Day One of that unprecedented effort in Los Angeles revealed the daunting struggle that lies ahead across the state. By dinnertime on a recent Friday, a shuttle bus had dropped off only four homeless people at a community center that was being turned into a shelter in the Echo Park neighborhood. 

The four clients sat on the curb, waiting to be checked in. But the nurse had yet to arrive. Cots had not been delivered. One of the four, a distraught older woman in gray sweatpants, kept repeating “food, food.” When a helper tried to escort her to a restroom across the street to wash up before eating, she would not follow. Eventually, she wandered off and could not be coaxed back.

“It’s tough,” admits Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We’ve never moved this many people, ever.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

In a matter of weeks, the city is trying to voluntarily move 6,000 unsheltered people into 42 community and recreation centers that are being converted into shelters. Those who are especially vulnerable, though not showing symptoms of COVID-19, as well as those who need to be quarantined will be sent to hotels, motels, or care centers.

But the mayor and others deeply involved in this issue are also looking ahead to after the crisis, whenever that comes. And how California responds to the needs of homeless people during a pandemic – particularly the unsheltered – may well shape thinking about what is still needed to address a vexing, complex problem that was a crisis long before the coronavirus hit. 

“It’s certainly something we’re thinking about now,” Mayor Garcetti told a press briefing. “What can we do … to get the homeless, not just out of this crisis, but off the streets?” 

A first-order priority

California is ground zero for America’s homelessness crisis. About 150,000 people are homeless here, living in shelters, on sidewalks, in tent encampments, canyon washes, and under bridges in the Golden State, often in highly unsanitary conditions. Many are older and in poor health, which heightens the risk of an explosion in severe virus cases that could further strain medical and city services. 

Before the coronavirus hit, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom had made homelessness his first priority, devoting his entire State of the State speech to the subject. It polled as the top issue among voters as well. Now COVID-19 has added even more urgency to the issue, underscoring what people who work with the homeless population have known all along – that the challenge is not only in tackling a housing crisis but also a health one.

To slow the growth of the virus, the governor, in a March 18 executive order, directed $150 million to localities to help with shelters and hotel and motel rooms. The state also purchased more than 1,300 camper trailers for people who might need to be quarantined. 

So far, the effort has been intense but spotty, accompanied by a debate about whether to move people into shared shelters or individual motel rooms.

As of April 1, Los Angeles had converted 13 community centers to shelters with 565 beds. The shelters are 95% full. More shelters as well as hotels, motels, and 1,000 quarantine beds are expected to come online in the next few days; 900 are already available. So far, five cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the homeless community.

Some homeless people are skeptical about the safety of shelters in a pandemic. “We’re safer out here than in a shelter,” says Ayman Ahmed, who sleeps in a tent at Echo Park Lake, voicing a common sentiment.

Still, the crisis is clearing away barriers that would normally hinder progress. Resources are being freed up, regulations eased, and eviction moratoriums declared in an all-hands-on-deck response that people who work with the homeless population hope can be extended after the pandemic ends. As those who are unsheltered enter temporary accommodation, even gathering data about them could be helpful in the long term, because so little is known about this population.

“We don’t know how many people are disconnected from homeless and health services. We don’t know the length of time the unsheltered have been on the streets. Both are predictive factors that show how hard or easy it may be to stably house someone,” says Gary Painter, an expert on homelessness at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, community support for emergency sheltering – instead of resistance – has been “pretty fantastic,” says Heidi Marston, interim executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “As bad and unfortunate and uncertain as this pandemic is, it’s renewing a sense of crisis response and urgency that we have been looking for across the whole system.” 

Cutting red tape

Bay Area Community Services, based in Oakland, runs programs that provide short-term and permanent housing for homeless residents, with an emphasis on seniors and those with physical or mental health conditions. Outreach workers have fanned out across the San Francisco Bay Area to educate those living on the streets and in vehicles about the coronavirus.

“What we’ve seen is that a lot of people don’t know the severity of the crisis,” says Jamie Almanza, the group’s executive director. As workers attempt to shepherd people into shelters and other temporary housing, she adds, “The question is how to capture this moment and this sense of urgency we’re seeing.”

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Homeless people sleep near Los Angeles City Hall on March 27, 2020. On Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the surge in COVID-19 that health officials warned about will worsen.

Governor Newsom’s emergency order has sliced through red tape that can slow down efforts to house those who lack permanent shelter. A pair of hotels in Oakland will provide housing for almost 400 people living in encampments, and in San Francisco, officials have identified some 8,500 vacant rooms in 30 hotels where they will seek to place homeless individuals and families in the days and weeks ahead. 

As cities and counties work with state and federal agencies, Ms. Almanza says public officials are releasing emergency funds and relaxing rules on existing spending on homelessness. To locate available housing, officials are relying on local nonprofits. Ms. Almanza hopes the increased cooperation and trust will last beyond the pandemic given that, with or without the threat of COVID-19, those living on the streets and in shelters face a daily life-or-death struggle.

“It’s becoming crystal clear during this crisis that the nonprofit organizations are the front-line first responders,” she says. “And what this could mean for the long term is a better understanding by government funders of what can happen when we all really come together.”

Lessons learned in Fresno

The 2007-08 housing market crash contributed to a rise in California’s homeless population as banks foreclosed on homeowners and large encampments sprouted in cities across the state.

In 2008, officials in Fresno embarked on a 10-year plan to reduce homelessness, funneling more funding and resources into rapid re-housing, permanent housing, and supportive services. By 2017, the city’s homeless population had fallen almost 60%, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a much steeper decline than seen elsewhere in California. 

The numbers have climbed again over the past few years as Fresno – like the state as a whole – contends with an acute shortage of affordable housing. But city officials assert that, in the same way they learned lessons from the housing crash, the pandemic response can inform policies for aiding the homeless population now and in the future.

“This is a crisis within a crisis,” says H. Spees, director of strategic initiatives for Fresno Mayor Lee Brand. “You have the homelessness crisis being enveloped by the COVID-19 crisis, and with that, you have the opportunity to leverage short-term responses into long-term solutions.”

Last week, in the span of 72 hours, the city opened up 300 new shelter beds in a vacant hotel and two other buildings and began housing homeless residents. The swift action could serve as a template for the city long after the pandemic passes.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Mr. Spees says. “But we are seeing waves of public and private resources come together to speed up the street-to-home transition, and it’s demonstrating that moving people off the streets can happen quickly when we have collective effort.”

Removing barriers 

In East Palo Alto, south of San Francisco, the Rev. Paul Bains laments that it has taken a pandemic to bring greater urgency to the cause of ending homelessness. At the same time, as the president of WeHOPE, a homeless shelter and supportive services provider, he recognizes that the coronavirus response presents an opportunity.

“There is so much attention right now on getting people off the streets and out of the elements and giving them a chance to get healthy,” he says. “Barriers are being removed because people are realizing what the risks are for someone who doesn’t have a place to live.”

In the past week, Mr. Bains has secured $230,000 in funding to expand WeHOPE’s fleet of mobile shower trailers and purchase 15,000 face masks to distribute to homeless individuals, outreach workers, and emergency responders. He credits local officials and Governor Newsom for creating momentum to prioritize initiatives on homelessness.

“What we’re seeing is that, with community collaboration and strong leadership, we have the wherewithal to address these systemic issues,” Mr. Bains says. 

But it’s not just a spirit of collaboration that will be needed, says Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco. It also takes a serious, sustained, financial commitment.

“Homelessness is a catastrophe,” she says. “It requires a level of response that is not going to be free and is going to cost money, but is absolutely essential to preserve health.”

That money could be harder to find as the U.S. goes into a recession that will sap state budgets. California has a substantial rainy day fund, but it is likely to be drawn down rapidly in a deep economic downturn. 

Dr. Kushel believes that hotels could perhaps play a larger role in a long-term solution to homelessness in California. When the crisis is over, some of the high-end hotels will go back to being hotels, she says. “There might be others who believe that having full occupancy brings more value to their properties.”

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Climate realities

An occasional series

3. This town aims to ditch fossil fuels entirely

In the fight against global warming, how far should governments go in forcing residents to change? One Maryland suburb is testing the limits. This story is part of an occasional series on “Climate Realities.”

Yvonne
Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A house in Takoma Park, Maryland, sports solar panels on March 30, 2020. The suburb was one of the first places in the country to declare itself “nuclear-free," and now aims to go fossil fuel-free by 2045.

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Takoma Park, Maryland, wants to do what has not yet been achieved in the United States: become a fossil fuel-free community. On March 4 the City Council passed a resolution to that effect, though not without debate from residents. A particular point of contention: Should the city government be able to force residents to phase out their gas stoves and furnaces?

Voluntary programs haven’t gotten the job done, says Gina Mathias, Takoma Park’s sustainability manager. “If they worked the way that we would hope they would, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Ms. Mathias, who notes that other U.S. cities tend to follow Takoma Park’s lead.

Mike Lastort has lived in his house since 1994 and doesn’t always care for the domestic intrusions. “I guess I’ve got a bit of a ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ attitude sometimes when it comes to government,” he says.

But when asked to choose between his stove and a cleaner world, Mr. Lastort doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” he says. “If it would be a little bit more difficult for me to make an omelet or something, if it would help save the planet, I’d rather save the planet.”

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This town aims to ditch fossil fuels entirely

Gina Mathias has what many would consider a dream job.

A lifelong environmentalist, Ms. Mathias is the sustainability manager of Takoma Park. The leafy Maryland suburb is one of the most progressive cities in the United States – a place where residents boast about their town’s preponderance of solar panels and electric vehicles. They’re proud it was one of the first places in the country to declare itself “nuclear-free.”

But many of those same residents were in an uproar in February when Ms. Mathias brought a resolution to the City Council that laid out an ambitious agenda to combat climate change in the coming decades. The most contentious idea: making Takoma Park a fossil fuel-free community by 2045, a feat that has not been done before in the U.S.

Becoming fossil fuel-free would entail everything from retrofitting gas stations to retiring gas-powered water heaters and leaf blowers. The debate at the council meeting centered around the potential cost and timeline – and whether the Takoma Park city government should be able to force residents to phase out their gas stoves and furnaces.

As Ms. Mathias sees it, the question of whether such a program should be mandatory has already been answered.

“That’s why we’re in the climate crisis to begin with – voluntary programs. If they worked the way that we would hope they would, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
This station, located on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, Maryland, and shown here on March 30, 2020, was the first in the nation to switch from gas pumps to electric vehicle chargers.

The council passed a revised resolution in early March, but the surrounding tumult made it clear that city leaders will have to carefully consider when to make mandates and how citizens will take the mandatory approach.

Takoma Park’s experience is likely to be a precursor for other fights that could soon bubble up as more and more towns reckon with the climate crisis.

“What we do in Takoma Park makes its way around the country,” says Ms. Mathias. “We get calls pretty regularly from other cities looking to implement ... other environmental programs that we’ve implemented already. All the cities – we talk to each other, we share what we do, we learn from each other.”

If governments want citizens to back their ideas and proposals, they will need to be savvy about how they frame the discussion, says Reuven Sussman, a social and environmental psychologist at the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“Some people think that implementing policy is all you need to do in order to get the change made,” he says, “[but] if you’re able to create a situation where the default behavior is the one you’re trying to do as opposed to the default being something that people are already doing, you can get a lot done.”

Like many things today, Takoma Park’s fossil fuel-free moves are temporarily on the back burner as the coronavirus crisis commands attention. Mayor Kate Stewart noted in an email that amid the crisis, “we are still figuring out how committees can meet.”

Planting the seeds in 2014

For years, the environment has been a top issue in Takoma Park. In 2014, the city entered a nationwide contest to reduce home energy use and placed third. The competition planted the seeds for this year’s resolution, as it helped the city determine the best emissions-cutting strategies.

It also exposed the limits of voluntary participation programs. Ms. Mathias struggled to get 20% of the city’s homes to participate.

“We did direct mailing; we did dozens and dozens of public education events, neighborhood meetings in people’s homes. We hit every single kind of public outreach over a two-year period, short of having a marching band go up and down every street at 6 a.m. to get people to wake up,” she says.

Despite the high-ranking finish in the contest, the city’s mobilization of resources has proved somewhat ineffective. Per capita emissions barely declined from 2012 to 2017, and total emissions still increased for the 2-square-mile town. The tepid results have motivated city leaders to push for more aggressive measures, like hitting net-zero emissions by 2035.

Transportation is responsible for the bulk of those emissions, but the city has more control over housing. It is calling for building-based interventions like lighting upgrades, the establishment of minimum energy-efficiency standards, and the swapping out of gas appliances for electric ones.

More and more cities are considering such reforms, particularly after Berkeley, California, became the first American city to ban natural gas infrastructure in new buildings last year. A recent report suggests that expanding the renewable energy industry and aggressive electrification could reduce U.S. building emissions by nearly 80% by 2050.

The trend concerns Takoma Park residents like Ariel Woods, who worries that electrification costs will unfairly burden renters and low-income homeowners.

“We like saying that we’re nuclear-free, [and] I see the appeal of saying, ‘Takoma Park, a fossil fuel-free town!’ But I would rather be a town that has lower income inequality than be a fossil fuel-free town,” says Ms. Woods, who used to rent and now owns a home in the city.

The cost to replace appliances

If residents had to replace every appliance at once, it would cost roughly $25,000, says Ms. Mathias. However, the city is working on a sustainability fund, she adds, and still has funds left over from federal and state grants that not enough residents used – part of the reason they’re opting for requirements instead of more voluntary programs.

However, forcing residents to give up their incandescent lightbulbs and gas stoves – albeit at the end of their natural life cycle – sparked heated discussions in council meetings and neighborhood online forums.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A sign along Carroll Avenue welcomes people to Takoma Park, Maryland, on March 30, 2020. For years, the environment has been a top issue in this suburb.

Mike Lastort has lived in his house since 1994 and doesn’t always care for the domestic intrusions.

“I guess I’ve got a bit of a ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ attitude sometimes when it comes to government,” says Mr. Lastort, a self-declared social democrat. “I don’t want government to say, ‘Do this just because I said so.’ And that seems kind of like what Takoma Park did with this proposal; it doesn’t seem like they thought [it] all the way through.”

If people feel their freedom is being infringed upon, they will do the opposite of what is asked of them, says Mr. Sussman – what social behavioral researchers call “reactance.”

“[Reactance] can really derail progress in policy. That’s why many policymakers will not go so far to make those expensive things mandatory,” he says.

The City Council softened the resolution’s language in a revised version after the initial outrage, but that only prompted a corresponding backlash from fervent environmentalists, who started a petition to encourage the council to restrengthen the framework.

“In the 1960s, we didn’t approach bigoted Southern sheriffs and say, ‘Will you voluntarily commit to integration every other Saturday in public facilities?’” says Mike Tidwell, who directs the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “The consequences of lighting coal, oil, and natural gas on fire are so existentially harmful to every living being on this planet, that the moment has arrived where we have to commit to banning the practice of lighting this fuel on fire.”

The environmentalists’ gambit worked. The City Council revised the resolution again, writing the most ambitious document yet before passing it on March 4. The petition impressed Ms. Mathias.

“Generally in local issues the negative voice is what we hear the most, so to have a petition with that many signatures and to have this many people come out and support something that [City] Council is doing was really unusual,” she says. “I don’t remember in my last six years at the city anything drawing this level of support.”

As for the gas stoves, Ms. Mathias says the uproar showed that they are a touch point, and she hints at potential exemptions. But the city may not need them. When asked to choose between his stove and a cleaner world, Mr. Lastort doesn’t hesitate.

“Yeah,” he says. “If it would be a little bit more difficult for me to make an omelet or something, if it would help save the planet, I’d rather save the planet.”

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4. Locavores were resetting the American table. Then came a pandemic.

With farm-to-table restaurants takeout-only and many farmers markets closed, locavores are concerned that the pandemic could undo the progress of their movement. Others believe the crisis only highlights how vital local supply chains are.

Yvonne
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Even as his tables groan with plenty, Adam Mentzer has watched his customers dwindle from multiple restaurants and markets to basically fewer than a handful, including at the Forsyth Farmers' Market in Savannah, Georgia. He talks to his employees right before the market opens on March 29, 2020.

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In Minneapolis, professional forager Mike Kempenich went from his best year ever in his mushroom business to “zero sales” overnight as the Keg and Case food hall closed down.

Yet in the midst of the turmoil, a grocery store chain bought his entire fungi stock – part of an effort both to keep Mr. Kempenich’s small firm afloat and to make sure that shelves are stocked.

The anxiety that has sparked hoarding behavior and temporary shortages is rooted in a food supply infrastructure designed more to push volume than to nimbly fill market demands. That means that despite America's cornucopia, fears of scarcity remain.

“This highlights the need for Minneapolis or any American city to localize their supply chains,” says Mr. Kempenich. “What I hope people do is take a step back and think, ‘Hey, we have an incredibly unique moment in history here ... where we can recognize the flaws that are so obvious and address them, and not just go back to business as usual.’”

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Locavores were resetting the American table. Then came a pandemic.

As a morning sun filters through the live oak boughs overhanging the Forsyth Farmers’ Market, two lines quickly build to snap up Adam Mentzer’s bouquets of carrots and asparagus.

On any other day, the foot traffic would be a bonanza for his small organic farm, Adam’s Farm and Garden. But Mr. Mentzer’s brow is furrowed and his expression clipped.

Two weeks ago, this Savannah market barely opened as the city shuttered all nonessential businesses, saved at the last minute by an exemption. Meanwhile, trend-setting restaurants like Staplehouse in Atlanta have become soup kitchens to help out during the crisis.

“My warehouse is full, but my markets are disappearing,” says Mr. Mentzer. “I’m worried.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

America’s globalized food supply chain is groaning under the weight of a national emergency. As the baskets overflowed on Saturday in the park, onions, potatoes, and meat were nonexistent at one Savannah-area Kroger. 

Some of the nation’s best restaurants have turned from feeding the Instagram generation to feeding the newly unemployed. But behind a deepening struggle to keep kitchens open is another challenge: how to preserve the farm-to-table supply chains that have been changing how America eats. As restaurants close or go to takeout, producers are deeply worried about the ability of local farmers, foragers, and fishers to ride out the pandemic. But there is also a growing sense that the crisis is causing Americans to see new value in local foodscapes.

For many Americans, the term food insecurity is tied to class and income. But today it has become a larger, buzzing question across the continent.

“I wouldn’t blame the government for shutting the market down, but that would be like shutting down a lifeline for me right now,” says Alex Chamberlain, a laid-off restaurant server, at the market. “Is that scary? Yeah, that’s scary.”

The anxiety that has sparked hoarding behavior and temporary shortages is rooted in a food supply infrastructure designed more to push volume than to nimbly fill market demands. That means that despite America’s cornucopia, fears of scarcity remain.

“The food system today is built upon a lack of transparency: That’s how folks make money, in the arbitrage,” says Ben Deda, CEO of FoodMaven, a locavore logistics firm in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “But in a situation like this, you want there to be a transparent view of supply and demand to make sure that you don’t have artificial spikes in prices or supply. There is no true shortage of food right now, so there shouldn’t be this sense of fear. But food is at the base level of what you need. If people only fear they don’t have enough food, that creates a real dangerous situation.” 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Amelia Gay lived through decades of civil war before emigrating from Angola to the United States with her husband, James Gay. Given that experience, the bounty of their Georgia farm, and their connection to Savannah's Forsyth Farmers' Market, Ms. Gay feels no panic about food shortages. Their mission now, says Mr. Gay, is to "fight fear with kindness and compassion." The couple and their children sell microgreens from their farm at the market on March 29, 2020.

To be sure, supply chain experts say America has enough chicken in cold storage to feed a nation. But at trucking logistics firms like Allen Lund Company, color-coded tracking maps are lit up red across the United States, suggesting a “widespread shortage of capacity,” executive vice president Kenny Lund tells JOC.com, a logistics intelligence firm.

In California, farmworker unions are pushing farmers to take precautions in the field, not out of concern of contamination, but to keep critical workers – already in short supply – healthy. 

“Food production is a strategic issue for the country,” says Daniel Stanton, author of “Supply Chain Management for Dummies.” The global food network “is great, because it gives us a huge number of choices at a relative low cost. But what you find is when there is a disruption anywhere, it causes a blip in the system. And when you have disruption everywhere, the only supply chains that really work are the ones you started with: simple, local production.” 

From best year ever to “zero sales”

In Minneapolis, forager Mike Kempenich went from his best year ever in his Forest to Fork mushroom business to “zero sales” overnight as customers like the Keg and Case food hall closed down.

Courtesy of Mike Kempenich
Minnesota forager Mike Kempenich holds up a prime fungus. Mr. Kempenich has had to close his Forest to Fork outlet at the Keg and Case food hall in Minneapolis, but a local grocery chain bought up his entire supply in order to keep him afloat – and prevent a sense of scarcity in local markets.

Yet in the midst of the turmoil, an 11-store grocery chain called Kowalski’s Markets bought his entire fungi stock. It’s part of an effort both to keep Mr. Kempenich’s small firm afloat and to make sure that shelves are stocked while many markets struggle to get trucks into the loading dock.

“This highlights the need for Minneapolis or any American city to localize their supply chains,” says Mr. Kempenich. “What I hope people do is take a step back and think, ‘Hey, we have an incredibly unique moment in history here ... where we can recognize the flaws that are so obvious and address them, and not just go back to business as usual.’” 

Amelia Gay has seen privation, and this isn’t it. “Right now, I’m not worried about food for me and my family,” she says at the Savannah market. “Part of the reason for that is all the food I can see around me from all these other vendors.”

On hand: seasonal shad roe, locally butchered pork, cultivated mushrooms.

An immigrant from Angola, Ms. Gay lived through decades of civil war before moving to the U.S. Today, she and her husband, James Gay, run a small microgreens farm in Pooler, Georgia.

“The key for us right now is to be compassionate to counter that feeling of fear in people,” says Mr. Gay.

In Abingdon, Virginia, the local farmers market is shut down, but producers are switching to direct-to-consumer internet sales.

“Things are changing,” says market manager David McLeish, who owns a small wool-and-veggies farm called Dreamland Alpacas outside the city limits. “People are going to become even more aware of where their food comes from, and they will support local farmers even more.” 

Victory in gardening

For many producers, their role in fighting the pandemic is taking on a patriotic glow. 

“Our farmers are saying, ‘As long as there’s soil, I’m going to be growing,’” says Mary Elizabeth Kidd, communications manager at Georgia Organics in Atlanta, which helps connect farmers with consumers. “I have found such hope in their determination. And as an eater, it brings me a great sense of comfort that I know where to get eggs, some grains, and some big juicy tomatoes.”

That search for eddies of safety amid currents of fear has begun to drive policy. Colorado has made it easier to package inspected meats in order to streamline local supply chains. A growing number of states are listing farmers markets as essential to fighting the pandemic. 

“States are loosening logistical bottlenecks to get food to where it needs to go, and that’s happening at the smaller producer level, too,” says Shelie Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems in Ann Arbor.

In 2018, a survey of U.S. consumers showed roughly 60% to 70% are willing to pay more for food products in the “natural, ethical, enhanced or ‘less of’ categories” – at least a 10 percentage-point increase from two years earlier. But that was before millions of people lost their jobs.

Thousands of field-to-table chefs are currently cooking only at home. Some of them worry that the locavore movement will, in fact, retreat as America faces a recession in which commodities may shoulder out local niche products. 

“I look at how slowly the culture of local foods was built in Atlanta, and I worry with a lot of restaurants that have those values going away, does Atlanta go backwards to the meat-and-potatoes city it’s been for 40 or 50 years?” says Josh Hopkins, a former executive chef at Empire State South in Atlanta. 

Yet times of crisis can also clarify the bonds between consumers and local suppliers, says Alan Muskat, an Asheville, North Carolina, “philosoforager” and educator.

“What goes to the heart of the challenge and possibility now is fear versus love,” says Mr. Muskat, who leads guided mushroom hunts across the Appalachian Highlands. “The hunter-gatherer and fisherman see real abundance ... [and] realize we don’t have to be afraid [of going hungry]. If we stay afraid, it’s possible we go more in a direction of autocratic centralization [of the food supply]. But if we recognize this is a Garden of Eden even now and we can all feed each other locally if we share, then it’s very clearly laid out – it’s a bottom-line choice that this virus makes obvious.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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On Film

5. For diverting films while housebound, try Hitchcock

One way to focus your movie watching while shut-in is to adopt one genre or director. Film critic Peter Rainer argues Hitchcock films should be at the top of your playlist: “Has any other director made a greater number of peerlessly entertaining movies?” 

Yvonne
World History Archive/Newscom
“North by Northwest” is a 1959 spy thriller starring Cary Grant and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
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For diverting films while housebound, try Hitchcock

I have often been asked what movies I would choose to watch if I were stranded on a desert island. Lately the inquiries have been more about what classics to check out while housebound. In both cases, Alfred Hitchcock’s films top my list.

Has any other director made a greater number of peerlessly entertaining movies? Before he even came to Hollywood to make “Rebecca,” he had already racked up a formidable body of work in England, not only the famous thrillers “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” but also such lesser-known gems as “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” and “Young and Innocent.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“North by Northwest” 

It is Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies that shine brightest for me, and none more so than 1959’s “North by Northwest.” It’s the ultimate escapist entertainment because it has, incomparably, everything: thrills, spills, romance, wit. Its crazy-quilt mistaken-identity plot, courtesy of screenwriter Ernest Lehman, features one classic scene after another. And of course – I almost forgot – it has Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. In top form.

One year before, Hitchcock made “Vertigo,” the brooding masterpiece starring James Stewart and Kim Novak that is also his most personally felt film. For his next movie, as recounted in the must-read 1967 book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” Hitchcock said he wanted to do something fun and lighthearted. Grant plays suave Madison Avenue ad exec Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a spy and chased across the country by both government agents and nefarious villains (headed by James Mason and Martin Landau at their silkiest). Two iconic sequences stand out: Grant, on the run in a flat, open field in Indiana, being attacked by a crop duster; and the grand finale, with Grant and Saint clambering up Mount Rushmore. (Reportedly Hitchcock entertained the idea of calling the film “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.”)

The plot has so many circumlocutions that, on a first viewing, or a fifth, it may not entirely add up. But – and here’s the crucial point – it doesn’t really matter. Much of the movie’s wit is bound up in its serial escapades. There’s always something irresistible going on. Hitchcock and Lehman are playing with us. They understand how avidly we crave all this high-flying escapism, and they know just how to deliver it.     

I’ve been friendly acquaintances for many years with Saint and can’t resist one anecdote here. I asked her once what it was like to work with Hitchcock, and she said he only gave her one real piece of direction: “When you’re acting opposite Cary, always remember to look into his eyes.” Not, I would venture to guess, a difficult assignment. (Unrated)

“To Catch a Thief”

Aside from “North by Northwest” and Stanley Donen’s “Charade” – the greatest Hitchcock movie ever made that Hitchcock didn’t make – the film in which Cary Grant is at his most Cary Grant-ish is probably 1955’s “To Catch a Thief.” He plays a retired jewel thief in the French Riviera whose comfortable life growing grapes and flowers is interrupted by a string of copycat robberies. He must clear his name. Along for the jaunt is Grace Kelly (it was during filming that she met her future husband, Prince Rainier III of Monaco) as the daughter of a rich vacationing widow. (Funny footnote: The widow is played by Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Grant’s mother in “North by Northwest,” even though she was only seven years older than him.) The movie is a glorious trifle, and all that sun-drenched Riviera scenery is good for the soul. (Rated PG)

Paramount Pictures/Album/Newcom
James Stewart and Grace Kelly star in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film "Rear Window."

“Rear Window”

If you’re up for a somewhat darker Hitchcock movie – relax, we’re not talking “Psycho” or “The Birds” here – 1954’s “Rear Window” is just the ticket right now for our shut-in lives. James Stewart plays a news photographer laid up with his leg in a cast in his Greenwich Village apartment. He bides his time peering into the windows of his neighbors across the courtyard and gradually comes to believe that one of them has committed a murder. His gold-plated, marriage-minded girlfriend and reluctant accomplice, played by Grace Kelly, does things like ordering him dinner and champagne from “21.” This probably beats the grocery delivery service you’ve been using. It’s the ultimate movie about voyeurism featuring cinema’s most famous peeping Tom. (Rated PG)

These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. 

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The Monitor's View

Reversing power grabs in a pandemic

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

On Monday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán persuaded Hungary’s parliament to give him the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period. But on Tuesday he went further and introduced a measure to strip the country’s mayors of political autonomy. Municipalities would have to answer to local “defense committees” largely controlled by Mr. Orbán. The outcry was instant. Hungarians knew that the tough steps needed to gain public compliance in combating the virus required the electoral legitimacy of local leaders.

Within 24 hours, the ruling party was forced to withdraw the measure. In order to maintain cooperation from the people, mayors across Hungary have set a roadblock on Mr. Orbán’s march toward autocracy.

For now, democracy at the local level remains alive and well in a country at the heart of Europe. The public’s embrace of the principles that hold society together was greater than its fear of the coronavirus.

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Reversing power grabs in a pandemic

To deal with the coronavirus, governments across the world have either taken emergency powers by fiat or been granted them democratically. Either way, the curbs on liberty have generally been accepted – if seen as both temporary and effective in ending the pandemic. But what if they are not seen that way?

A good example occurred this week in Hungary when a leader went too far in making an opportunistic power grab at a time of heightened fear.

On Monday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán persuaded Hungary’s parliament to give him the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period. Parliament suspended itself with no sunset clause to reverse it. A new law virtually ended rule of law at the national level. The move was a major step in a decade-long erosion of civil rights and freedoms under Mr. Orbán, who has openly said he does not believe in liberal democracy.

But on Tuesday he went further and introduced a measure to strip the country’s mayors of political autonomy. Municipalities would have to answer to local “defense committees” largely controlled by Mr. Orbán. The outcry was instant. Hungarians knew that the tough steps needed to gain public compliance in combating the virus required the electoral legitimacy of local leaders.

“This proposal is dangerous not only for our democracy, but it also makes the fight against coronavirus very difficult,” said Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony.

Within 24 hours, the ruling party was forced to withdraw the measure. In order to maintain cooperation from the people, mayors across Hungary have set a roadblock on Mr. Orbán’s march toward autocracy.

The prime minister’s extraordinary power to rule by decree still stands, a step that the European Union has rebuked. The EU may find a way to force Hungary to revise the power grab. “We will take action as necessary,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Yet for now, democracy at the local level remains alive and well in a country at the heart of Europe. The public’s embrace of the principles that hold society together was greater than its fear of the coronavirus.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Healed of pneumonia

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

After receiving a pneumonia diagnosis, a woman turned to God for help – and experienced firsthand the biblical promise that “with God all things are possible.”

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Healed of pneumonia

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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In December 2008 I spent the holidays with my family in South Africa. Soon after returning home to the U.K., I became ill with what appeared to be a severe cold.

I’ve been a Christian Scientist all my life and have experienced many healings from prayer alone. But this time, instead of going to God in prayer to address the problem, I focused on the work that was waiting since my holiday. I worked long hours, despite feeling unwell. My health deteriorated rapidly. I had a persistent cough; I felt weak, couldn’t sleep, and was discouraged.

I’m in close touch with my family in South Africa, and they became concerned. To assuage their loving concern, I visited a doctor. He ordered that X-rays be taken, which indicated a severe case of pneumonia. The specialist he referred me to insisted I stay for urgent treatment.

I thanked him for all he had done but said that I wanted to go home. I had done what my family wanted me to do, but I felt sure right then that healing was possible through relying totally on God (see Mark 10:27).

Reluctantly, he agreed to release me, giving me his private telephone number to call if at any time I felt worse. I thanked him for all his care and concern, but I knew from experience I could put all my trust in God’s loving care.

I drove home and contacted a Christian Science practitioner, who agreed to pray for me straightaway. We prayed together every day, and I began to realize that illness was not my real identity. Christian Science explains that our true nature is entirely spiritual, made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:27).

I reasoned that God, who is infinitely loving and good, could not cause suffering of any kind. This sentence from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, reiterated that for me: “God is everywhere, and nothing apart from Him is present or has power” (p. 473).

I asked myself, How could God’s creation fall outside of His loving care? How could I, the spiritual expression of God’s goodness, be left out in the cold of mortality, when God’s immortal law of love is everywhere?

As the practitioner and I continued praying along these lines, my breathing became less labored, the fever gradually subsided, and I slept better. Still, I was impatient for complete healing.

One evening, although I was tired, it came to me to read that week’s Christian Science Bible Lesson, which was on the subject “Love,” rather than go to bed. Although I’d already read this twice, as I studied it again it was as if I were reading everything for the first time.

I read, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee” (Isaiah 41:10), and felt my fear dissolving. And I read this from Science and Health: “The depth, breadth, height, might, majesty, and glory of infinite Love fill all space. That is enough!” (p. 520). It was as if it had been written for me. I felt completely surrounded by God’s love. I began to see myself as God saw me: spiritual, perfect, intact.

At that moment, I knew I was healed. Filled with inspiration and deep gratitude to God, I continued my prayer. I was convinced that nothing aside from God and His perfect goodness had any legitimacy, and that as God’s reflection, this spiritual perfection applied to me right then.

Then, as if a heavy coat had been removed from my shoulders, the fear and all of the symptoms left. My breathing became normal, the incessant coughing just stopped, and for the first time I slept right through the night. The next morning, when giving my gratitude to the practitioner, I realized that my normal voice had returned, too. And there were no aftereffects.

This healing was for me an unquestionable proof of God’s care. It has been permanent, and remains an inspiration for me and my family and friends.

Adapted from a testimony published in the April 6, 2009, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Making do

Steve Helber/AP
George DeCola places "drive thru prayer" signs at a shopping center, April 2, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia. Mr. DeCola, who is a worship leader at a Lutheran church, offers prayers for those wanting spiritual guidance.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 3rd, 2020 )

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we’ll have a story about a family portrait phenomenon that’s helping Canadian families make the most of their time together in isolation.

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