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A small Illinois town in denial comes face to face with the virus

By Will Englund
A small Illinois town in denial comes face to face with the virus
Main Street in Du Quoin, Ill., where a coronavirus outbreak at Fairview Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center resulted in multiple deaths last fall. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Whitney Curtis

In late September, before covid-19 swept through southern Illinois like a prairie fire, before nearly every single resident of a nursing home in Du Quoin was infected, before the disease pushed Perry County's rural health-care system to the breaking point, confidence was in the air.

The county clerk, Beth Lipe, realized the pandemic wasn't causing any rush for absentee ballots. Of 9,300 applications she mailed out, she got back fewer than 1,000 requests, about the same as any other year.

The staff of the St. Nicholas Brewing Co. on a Friday afternoon set up 10 tables for their evening food and bar service next door in the parking lot of the Du Quoin State Bank. As usual, fewer than half their customers showed up in masks.

Fairview Rehabilitation and Healthcare, on East Jackson Street, had yet to see a single case of covid-19, six months into the pandemic. "I had escaped it," said the home's owner, Scott Stout. "We hoped and we prayed." That month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the nursing home a $19,000 incentive grant recognizing its superior infection-control procedures, one of thousands of such grants across the nation.

Elsewhere in the United States, the death toll passed 200,000. But up at the north end of Washington Street, the nurses at Marshall Browning Hospital, a 25-bed "critical access" facility, were beginning to exhale because there had been so few signs of the illness since a brief flurry in the spring.

"We had a really long grace period," said Amy Blakemore, the medical-surgical nurse manager at the hospital. "I'm going to attribute it to sheer dumb luck that we kept our numbers as low as we did as long as we did."

Du Quoin's experience with covid-19 this past fall was typical of hundreds of small towns across the United States. Alarm when the pandemic began gave way to a mixture of complacency, denial and resistance to public health measures as the disease seemed for so long to be passing rural America by.

"We're prone to that make-believe way of thinking," Blakemore said. "It's not going to happen here. It's a city thing."

But when it became real, spreading across the Midwest, filling hospitals to capacity, many nursing homes found that good infection control on paper was no match for an insidiously contagious virus. The inspection system for American nursing homes left them ill-equipped to deal with the novel coronavirus and, in far too many cases, blind to the threat. At the moment of crisis, a lack of hospital space forced nursing home staffers to take on the burden of covid-19 care - an obligation many shouldered with heroic dedication, but lacked proper equipment and training to fulfill.

What happened at the Fairview Rehabilitation and Healthcare center, where the coronavirus infected 42 residents and killed a quarter of them, was not an exception. Resthaven Nursing and Rehabilitation in Lake Charles, La., had no cases in September, October or November, then nearly 100 in three weeks in December. Elderwood in Hamburg, N.Y., had none through early December, and then 48 in the month that followed. Windber Woods in Paint, Pa., had none through late November, then 45 over the next six weeks. Parke View Rehabilitation and Care Center in Burley Falls, Idaho, had three cases in all of last year, and 24 this year.

Each of those nursing homes received incentive grants from HHS in the fall for good infection control, ranging from $34,000 to $69,000.

In Perry County, there had been just one death all spring, a 58-year-old long-haul trucker who was joking with nurses when he showed up at the emergency room. A few hours later, he was on a ventilator, and not long after that, he died.

Health-care workers and nursing home staffers and administrators understood the need for vigilance. Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi urged residents to adhere to national and state guidelines. The Perry County fair was canceled for the first time since 1856, then the late-summer Du Quoin State Fair was, too.

But Perry County, about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis, is a deeply conservative place. President Donald Trump received 72% of the 2020 vote there, and a steady diet of contrarian attacks on mask-wearing and social distancing on TV and in social media, in the name of liberty, had an effect.

Alongi, whose family has run a restaurant in Du Quoin since 1933, said residents had asked him to somehow countermand an Oct. 19 order by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D, reimposing a ban on indoor seating at dining establishments.

That the disease had not made a real appearance there, that it was still an abstraction, sharpened residents' skepticism.

But November's eruption illuminated a deeper, underlying small-town problem. Marshall Browning Hospital has no intensive care nurses. The nearest ICU is 25 miles away, at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, and when that fills up, patients are looking at a two- or three-hour ambulance ride to the nearest ICU. After the Carbondale hospital was out of space, as it would be in November, the best options were in Missouri, Indiana or Kentucky.

- - -

In Collinsville, a suburb of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, Edythe Walston was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. It was Sept. 15.

Divorced when her three children were still small, she had a long career as an administrative assistant at the Peabody Coal Co., followed by a few years as a laboratory administrator in St. Louis.

Walston lived alone in the old family house in Collinsville, tending to her vegetable garden, caring for her cats and volunteering at the local pet rescue organization. She had been a conscientious newspaper reader all her life, but by now she was 85, suffering from heart disease and showing signs of mild dementia. All summer, she had been having recurring bouts of pneumonia, and in September it flared up again.

The hospital stabilized her and, with the pandemic putting pressure on all the hospitals in the St. Louis metropolitan area, sent her by cab to a local nursing home two days later.

Walston's daughter, Vicki Short, drove up as soon as she could from her home near Carbondale. Short, who is 52, had been living in Madison, Wis., but moved back with her wife, Jess, to Illinois so she could be closer to her mother.

Walston was too feeble to go home, but Short was deeply disturbed by the conditions she found at the nursing home. "It felt like a warehouse," she said. Worse, her mother had been hurt in a fall the day after she was admitted.Short resolved to find a place closer to where she and Jess lived.

On Sept. 26, an ambulance took her to the Fairview nursing home, a one-story brick building in Du Quoin across the street from a company that manufactures commercial holiday decor. There, about a 90-minute drive from the St. Louis metropolitan area where Walston had lived and worked, Short hoped the staff would have the time to do what they could to make her mother's life as meaningful as possible. As she was about to be wheeled in, Short gave her a hug. It was their last.

Walston was placed in a two-week quarantine. A coronavirus test came back negative. In a small town in the heart of the country, she and her daughter were outsiders.

On the surface, October was another quiet month. Fairview kept the virus at bay and federal regulators awarded it another incentive grant for quality infection control, this time for $48,000.

But all along there had been warning signs, some more obvious than others. A nursing home about 13 miles away, also operated by Stout's company, had 46 confirmed cases and three deaths during an outbreak in August. Stout said he and the staff at his firm, WLC Management, ran through many scenarios to think through how to avoid a repeat occurrence.

Handling a pandemic was a dire responsibility. Stout said he was frustrated by the constantly changing advice from federal and state health agencies. "You got to juggle all these guidelines," he said. "I told everybody, 'Give us the playbook. Tell me exactly what we need to do, and we'll do it.' "

Stout, 49, studied to be a mortician before he went into the nursing home business, and also owns a bar-and-grill. WLC operates 11 nursing homes and one assisted-living center in southern Illinois, and they get high marks from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that regulates nursing homes. Fairview has four stars, out of a possible five.

Yet a deeper dive into the reports compiled on every nursing home in the United States shows that in 2019, Fairview rehabilitation patients were 20% more likely than the average to return to the hospital for treatment, and were more than four times as likely to be treated with antipsychotic medications. Long-stay residents were almost twice as likely to require emergency room visits, and three times as likely to have urinary tract infections.

Stout said these figures are misleading: "They don't give you the full picture."

Blakemore, the nurse manager at Marshall Browning Hospital, said she believes that nursing home residents in her part of the state are generally in worse health than elsewhere to start with, because this is the sort of rural community where families "turn themselves inside out" to care for the elderly at home as long as possible. "By the time families are ready to concede this is more than they can do," she said, "those residents are really on the downhill slide."

- - -

Throughout October and into November, Vicki and Jess Short went to Fairview and visited with Walston as best they could, sitting outside a window on a bench and using a baby monitor to talk. Walston was getting confused, and Vicki Short could see that the edema she suffered in her legs was getting worse because they weren't properly propped up. "We just tried to keep her spirits up," Vicki Short said. "It sucked."

Some of the staffers were thoughtful and caring, she said, but others seemed to show "a lack of empathy or compassion, or they're all just horribly burned out."

On Oct. 11, state health officials held a Zoom call with local officeholders in southern Illinois, telling them the positivity rate for coronavirus tests in their region was growing fast, reaching 7.3%.

It had an effect. "Finally the ball-peen hammer hit the head and knocked some sense into it," said Alongi, the Du Quoin mayor, "and people masked up."

Three days later, the Perry County Board of Health renewed a discussion from summer about priorities for spending an $800,000 contact-tracing grant from the state.

November was calm to start with. Election Day came and went. Perry County turnout was strong, and in person, and Trump clobbered Joe Biden throughout most of southern Illinois.

While voters were at the polls Nov. 3, Fairview tested all ofits staffers for the coronavirus. Two days later, the results came back: all negative. The nursing home, locked down since spring, sent out a text message to families (which Short shared with The Post): "The positivity rate continues to climb in our region. We are monitoring it daily and will adjust our testing schedule as required. We are working on plans to reopen for visits and will notify you as soon as this is allowed."

The optimism turned out to be misplaced.

Staff tests were stepped up to twice a week. On Nov. 12 came word that one employee had tested positive. A text message assured families, "We will continue to test twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, until we have two weeks of negative testing. Until further notice, all dining and activities will be done in the resident rooms."

But there was no stopping it.

"All it needed was that one little crack to get in there," Blakemore said. "And then it was like gasoline on a brush fire."

Five residents tested positive on the 13th, the first since the pandemic began, according to Fairview's text messages. Nine more were added on the 17th, four more on the 19th, plus four employees. As symptoms began to show, staffers created an isolation wing for the ill, but the virus stayed ahead of them. In that first week, Fairview reported 18 resident cases to CMS, 22 more the next week, a total of 42 by early December.

All but a very few residents, in other words, showed signs of the coronavirus. Eventually, at least 11 would die of the disease.

"I was at Fairview when the breakout happened," Stout said. "We were heartbroken because we hoped it wouldn't get in the building. But the virus started spreading so quick." His staff followed proper procedures when moving residents, he said. "We put a face mask on them and we gowned them up."

After that first text message from Fairview about a positive test result, Vicki Short said, "we're thinking, OK, she's in a room alone, she's asymptomatic, she's got a fighting chance here."

But as the next few days went by, Short learned her mother had picked up a cough. Short couldn't visit because of the lockdown, so she couldn't see what was happening.

Her mother was lethargic and had trouble getting her words out when Short called her. A coronavirus test on Nov. 23 came back positive. A health coordinator called Short a day later: Her mother was in trouble. There was no room at Marshall Browning Hospital. Walston was turning blue from a lack of oxygen. Another call: A bed had just opened up at the hospital.

Blakemore had the "hard conversation" with Short when her mother was admitted. "I just remember telling her that we were going to take good care of her and keep her comfortable," Blakemore said. "Her mom was really, really sick. I remember it being really sad. It's just a really heartbreaking thing to know there's nothing you can do for them."

Edythe Walston died at 6:12 the next morning.

"Mom was very strong-willed, like people of her generation," Short said. To see her go that way, cut off and alone, no hugs or kisses, has left a hole, for her and Jess both.

"It's amazing how life throws things at you, and you go down a path you didn't intend. Love is love. We didn't plan on losing Mom so quickly. We're kind of like an open book and the chapter hasn't been written yet."

- - -

All these weeks, Blakemore, 52, had been managing the nursing staff of about 40 at the hospital. Covid-19 victims "would come to our ER and we couldn't get them transferred anywhere, because all the ICU beds were full," she said. "You're asking us to do ICU stuff, and we're [medical-surgical] nurses. We did a lot of education on the fly. There's no evidence-based practice for this, so we were making it up as we went along. Everybody in rural health care was probably in the same boat."

The advantage of a small town, she said, is that everybody knows everybody, and a lot of people pulled together to try to get through the crisis. At the two nursing homes in Du Quoin (the other one is also a WLC property, next door to Fairview and also stricken by the virus), staff knew they'd have to care in place for patients who would normally be sent to the hospital. There were calls back and forth, asking for advice, asking for help. Blakemore sent hospital nurses to the nursing homes to assist in setting up intravenous lines.

"It was just an intense time," she said. "The numbers at our nursing homes were very sadly so high. We had kept it out so long. It was almost a sense of failure when it got there. It was a team effort to dig out of that hole."

She could sense that her staff was starting to dread coming to work, afraid of doing the wrong thing. "These are good-hearted people," said Blakemore. "They were worried they wouldn't be up to the challenge of it. It took a lot of coaching and almost mom-cheerleading: 'We're going to get through this together. It's not going to be easy.' "

Anand Patel, a physician who had experience in ICUs, was a "godsend," she said, helping the staff work their way through the challenges.

On her way home, she'd sometimes stop off at Walmart and be shocked to see so many customers without masks. "You don't understand," she'd think. "This is a whole different animal. You think you've got a handle on it, and then it explodes like a nuclear bomb."

When the month began, Perry County, population 20,000, had experienced fewer than 500 coronavirus cases over seven months, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. By Nov. 12, when word came of the first positive test at Fairview, the county had 653 cases. By the end of the month, 1,238. By the end of January, 2,940, or nearly 15% of the county's residents. That's almost double the percentage of New York City's caseload. Fifty-six have died.

The hospital stepped up its efforts to communicate with the town through its Facebook page, emphasizing masks, hand-washing and social distancing. "There are just some people you cannot convince," said Pam Logan, who runs the page. And, she added, they won't listen until someone in their family gets seriously ill.

Blakemore's great-grandmother, Ella McMurtrie, was the first formally trained nurse at a community hospital in Sparta, Ill. During the 1918 flu epidemic, she knocked on doors, asking residents about symptoms, urging them to wear masks, to stay home. She visited the homes of Black families who either wouldn't, or more likely couldn't, be treated at the hospital.

"I guess door-to-door is what you did before Facebook," Blakemore said.

She keeps a portrait of McMurtrie on her wall. "Judging me. Every time I get frustrated, I look up at her, and I go, 'OK, fine. OK, fine, Gram.' "

Stout said he doesn't know what else his staff at Fairview could have done. "This virus, I don't think anybody really knows how it spreads," he said. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is primarily spread through airborne droplets.)

He's angry at the criticism nursing homes have received. "I haven't been in a real festive mood. I care about my staff, my team members. I care about my residents. The sad thing, everybody wants to talk negative about long-term care. We get up every day and fight the good fight. We've stayed on top of it. But all everybody wants to do is come in and scrutinize us."

The people who work for him can't cut themselves off from the community, he said. They still have to go to the store, and they can't help mingling there with people who don't wear masks. They can't eliminate the risk of exposure. By the end of the outbreak, 18 staffers had tested positive.

And unlike other kinds of businesses, a nursing home can't shut down. "My staff never got a break," he said. "This isn't an easy job. You couldn't go to your house and hide and sit at your computer and look out the window."

He said he is proud of the way his staff responded. "You think I haven't asked myself a million times what I could have done different? You think I haven't had sleepless nights? Everybody makes mistakes, but we've been doing everything we could think of doing."

Barbara Stevenson, the administrator of the Perry County Health Department, said she thought the staff at Fairview and other local nursing homes did as well as they could, given the realities they were facing: close quarters in the facilities and a high positivity rate in the city and county. Residents at high risk because of their underlying health are going to have a high death rate, she said.

"These are things you honestly can't fix," she said. "I guess if we had found a strategy that helped, I definitely would have been asking for it."

Vicki and Jess Short both came down with covid-19 in December, just as the outbreak was waning in Perry County, but have slowly recovered. Vicki is grieving and angry. Grieving at the way her mother, stubborn and self-sufficient all her life, spent her last confusing, unhappy days. Angry because she believes she wasn't getting a full picture from Fairview as to what was happening. "We couldn't get any answers. How do they do infection control? Just to not even have that transparency is scary and awful."

Angry, too, because it seemed that state and national health officials had done little through the 10 months of the pandemic to get a better handle on nursing home practices. "They basically throw their hands up and say, 'It's very contagious. It's a tragedy.' It's a very piecemeal, hodgepodge, ridiculous system, especially in rural counties. What are you guys doing to learn from the tragedy that happened to my mom?"

A consultant with the Illinois Department of Public Health, Deborah Burdsall, said the nursing homes that have had the best results in keeping the coronavirus out were those that jumped into high gear at the first sign of infection. The pandemic, she said, "had driven home the need for comprehensive infection prevention and control in long-term care facilities, and it will happen."

Stout is angry because he says he needs more staff, but it's nearly impossible to hire anyone. He estimates that 35% of his 650 employees companywide left in 2020. He blames enhanced unemployment insurance. "This day and age, the government's gone too easy on handouts, and no one wants to work," he said.

"I wish somebody in the Biden administration would call me and ask me about my work, day in and day out," he said. "Every day of our lives. We are dedicated."

At the St. Nicholas Brewing Co., diners are seated inside now that the positivity rate has declined, at widely spaced tables. General manager Abby Ancell, who pioneered farm-to-table dining in Du Quoin, is especially proud of the fish tacos. People still show up without masks; the restaurant has a stash by the door for patrons to wear while they walk to their tables. Some roll their eyes. Others turn on their heels and walk out. "Small-town southern Illinois, you never know what you're going to get," Ancell said.

"A lot of people think it's over," said Dan Eaves, the head of Marshall Browning Hospital. "We still have churches that are allowing people to come without masks. It's very disappointing."

Blakemore is wary. "We could easily have another November if we don't maintain the caution and follow the guidelines and listen to the science," she said. Du Quoin can't go back to the reckless and complacent way things were last summer, she said, "where everybody says, let's take a big, deep breath, let's go about our lives, let's rip our masks off, or go on a vacation, or let's have a prom, or let's have a party, or let's have a wedding with 400 guests. Getting people to understand that it's not time yet - that's the biggest challenge."

And if people don't listen, and the disease erupts again even as vaccinations are starting?

"When it's time to start bailing water," Blakemore said, "we start bailing water."

Julien Baker questioned her faith. Music helped her embrace the uncertainty.

By Sonia Rao
Julien Baker questioned her faith. Music helped her embrace the uncertainty.
With her introspective new album,

Had this interview taken place a few years ago, Julien Baker says, she might have tried harder to publicly reconcile being both gay and Christian. She felt beholden to others who also grew up with punitive notions of God, to assure them there was another way. But in defending God as he exists within the Christian worldview, would she have been limiting their approach to faith and ignoring how damaging that could be?

"Sorry, this is all I think about all day long," she says on a video call. "I wish it weren't. I wish I thought about other stuff, but I just think about the nature of God and freak out."

Baker sits on the top floor of her Nashville home on a late January afternoon, just weeks away from releasing her third solo album, "Little Oblivions," which arrived Friday. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter speaks quickly but deliberately, slowing down when the conversation gets heavy to ensure she speaks truthfully to her own experiences without disregarding anyone else's. The level of care suggests her growing acceptance of the unknown.

Losing conviction is a central theme of "Little Oblivions," a dozen tracks that are louder and fuller in sound than her previous work, and that she says reflect her restructured priorities. Over the course of a difficult 2019, she began to let go of the dogmatic beliefs that didn't serve her well. She had been taught to value her mind over her body, which led her to view her sobriety as a mental power she exerted over herself. But as she struggled to stay sober, what sense did it make to maintain that hierarchy?

The record reflects Baker's rejection of the dichotomy between body and mind. Her music has always delivered a punch to the gut, but this batch of songs finds new depths to that viscerality. She says she didn't consciously lean into tactile writing, whether singing of the "gore of our hearts" or the "medicine and poison" burning through her stomach. It poured out of her as she emerged from the dissociative space she had fallen into.

"That's a hard place to be, when you're dismantling everything you believe about yourself as an artist," she continues. "I'll undoubtedly look back at these lyrics and think they're pretty bleak and negative - even by the metric of my writing, they're pretty dark. But I think I needed to do that, to really just kick around in the wreck and the gross stuff and really see what was there instead of trying to ignore that it existed."

- - -

Growing up in Memphis, Baker didn't attend fire-and-brimstone services, but the "lovey dovey" sort held in rented strip malls. It was "rock 'n' roll church, where they were like, 'Jesus is cool! We've got electric guitar solos and everybody's wearing jeans!' "

The nondenominational churches preached the endless grace of God, but there was cause for his shows of benevolence. In the years leading up to her coming out to her parents at 17, Baker was taught, in her words, that "God is so loving that he forgives you for being fundamentally flawed in a way you can never fix because you're a dirty, evil sinner."

"It's like, 'Thank you, God,' you know what I mean?" she says sarcastically.

She turned to music, playing in a post-punk band called Forrister and immersing herself in the "emo revival" (the quotation marks are hers). She only started writing for herself as a student at Middle Tennessee State University, where she recorded demos alone in her dorm room. They soon became the album "Sprained Ankle."

Success found Baker early. She uploaded the EP to Bandcamp, where it attracted enough attention to reach the indie label 6131 Records, which officially released it in 2015. Her audience grew rapidly; within a year, she was written up in the New York Times and performing an NPR Tiny Desk concert.

Gratitude turned into an obligation to "repay the good that had come to me," Baker says. Given the narratives of healing and resilience that had emerged from a year of speaking candidly about faith and the substance abuse of her teen years, Baker approached her next album - 2017's "Turn Out the Lights," released by indie stalwart Matador Records - with the intention of making a "positive contribution" to society.

"I thought, 'Well, I suppose I've been given a modicum of credibility on this subject, so I need to speak thoughtfully to it. That's my duty as an artist to the world,' " she says. "What ended up happening is that I made a really technically beautiful, well-meaning record that isn't censored ... but there is a lot of my own retroactively shaping the narrative I had."

"Turn Out the Lights" debuted to near-universal acclaim. Whereas the sparse "Sprained Ankle" plays as a diary of raw apologies and laments, Baker's sophomore outing builds to a reckoning. She doesn't hesitate to dive into the pain she endured and unwittingly inflicted, whether related to mental illness or substance abuse, but dares herself to challenge the pattern. The single "Appointments" concludes with Baker trying to convince herself that "maybe it's gonna turn out all right/ Oh, I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is."

The lyrics are specific to Baker's feelings of isolation on her journey to a healthier way of living, but they speak to a universal desire for reassurance in distressing times. Her mind used to wander while she was onstage, thinking about how everyone in the crowd each led their own life full of baggage and trauma and accomplishments. It can be "overwhelming to just think of the magnitude of experience that you will never understand," she says.

Baker began to take herself "too seriously," evaluating her worth by how her music played in a commercial context. After wrapping up a tour with Boygenius, the group she formed in 2018 with singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Baker relapsed. She took a break from touring; stepping away from her job as a performer forced her to look inward, to piece together a sense of self she hadn't realized had been falling apart.

Her approach shifted. "Little Oblivions" isn't about healing, but catharsis.

"I was just living my life as an individual," Baker says. "That helped me feel like my higher duty was to accurately report what was going on in my own psyche, instead of trying to align with the best version of myself that I was trying to project as an example."

There isn't a shred of artifice on "Little Oblivions," its honesty palpable enough to make listeners flinch. On "Song in E," she admits that "it's the mercy I can't take," the feelings of indebtedness to loved ones who continue to support her. On "Favor," she wonders how long she has left "until I've spent up everyone's goodwill." The track features backing vocals by Bridgers and Dacus, who said Baker has pushed her as a songwriter.

"When I first started writing music, I felt like there had to be something uplifting about the songs in order to feel like I could share them, or some actively good element," Dacus said. "Julien's helped me expand what that means. Sometimes it's good to just dwell in the most difficult stuff you can imagine. I think she's gotten even better at that."

- - -

After canceling tour dates in 2019, Baker returned to school and wrote an 8,000-word thesis on synesthesia. She had received little guidance from her adviser other than, "Don't make it too hard on yourself. Sent from my iPhone." So naturally, she went all-in.

"I've always experienced music as color," she says. "I like playing the piano because it feels like watercolors. I don't know how else to explain it. Even wrong notes have a place."

Baker is surrounded by instruments on the video call, including a guitar positioned just slightly out of the frame. Dacus referred to her as a "guitar wizard," noting that Baker schleps around a giant pedalboard and played most of the other instruments on the Boygenius record - keyboard, mandolin, you name it. Bridgers added that her bandmate's musical abilities would make her a "very intimidating collaborator" if not for her kindness. She described Baker as a "crazy guitarist, crazy drummer and a huge gear nerd."

"Little Oblivions" embraces a full rock band sound, calling back to Baker's Forrister days. Again, she played almost all the instruments herself. It wasn't a deliberate decision to fill out the sound, but one that became apparent as she tossed out the arbitrary limits she had placed on her songwriting. "Hardline" opens the record with blaring organ chords that melt into the background as Baker's vocals kick in, narrating her relapse. Drums and the guitar amp up a sense of urgency, quickening the pulse as she wonders, "Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?" (a brutal lyric that can read literally or otherwise, an instance of how Baker's writing still leaves room for listeners to interpret).

"I pushed myself so hard to try to be competent in all these instruments because I wanted to have the maximum level of control and prove my legitimacy as a musician, but nobody but me is feeling that impostor syndrome," she says. "If I'd had somebody else play the drums, nobody would've been like, 'Fake musician!' Oh, anxiety. It makes you do all kinds of things."

Baker's Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam plays the drums in live arrangements of tracks from "Little Oblivions," as showcased in their January performance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." She loves that there's a clear derivative line between the record and the music they listened to as high-schoolers. (Anyone who listens to "Hardline" should be able to sense her teenaged affinity for Manchester Orchestra, she adds.)

Perhaps more notable is how Baker's music captures her evolution since that time, as a Christian and an artist learning to let go of the rules. She says she no longer thinks of God as a personified being pulling the puppet strings. Maybe she only held onto the notion of a preordained path in life because she was afraid to be wholly responsible for her own.

Baker doesn't know if God meant for her to be a musician, or whether she decided it for herself. What she does know is that music helps keep her head on straight.

"What makes people anxious is the unwillingness to accept uncertainty, but it's just kind of a defense mechanism," she says. "At the end of the day, if I write as truthfully as possible, if I take a fearless moral inventory of myself and put it in a song, then nobody can tell me that I'm being dishonest."

Solar cars: Driving on sunshine

By Sarah Kaplan and Aaron Steckelberg
Solar cars: Driving on sunshine
Aptera Motors CEOs Chris Anthony, left, and Steve Fambro with the three-wheel Aptera solar electric vehicle at the company's production design facility in San Diego. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jane Hahn

The dream began in 1955, with a tiny, toylike creation called the "Sunmobile." Built from balsa wood and hobby shop tires, it was just 15 inches long. The 12 selenium solar cells that decorated its exterior produced less horsepower than an actual horse. But it was proof of a concept: Sunlight alone can make a vehicle run.

The years went on, and the dream evolved into a converted vintage buggy with solar panels on its roof. Then a glorified bicycle, a retiree's garage project, a racecar that crossed the Mojave Desert at 51 miles per hour.

It is a dream of perpetual motion. Of travel that doesn't do damage to the planet. Of journeys that last as long as the sun shines.

There are problems with this dream, big ones. Clouds come. Night falls. The laws of physics limit how efficiently solar panels can turn light into energy.

But one start-up claims it has overcome those problems. Now, its founders say, the dream can be yours for as little as $25,900.

Aptera Motors, a California company whose name comes from the ancient Greek for "wingless," is rolling out the first mass-produced solar car this year. It's a three-wheel, ultra-aerodynamic electric vehicle covered in 34 square feet of solar cells. The car is so efficient that, on a clear day, those cells alone could provide enough energy to drive about 40 miles - more than twice the distance of the average American's commute.

The Aptera must undergo safety tests before the company can begin distribution, which it hopes to do by the end of this year. Even then, it's not clear that consumers will want to buy something that looks like a cross between the Batmobile and a beetle. The shadow of an initial attempt, which ended in bankruptcy, hangs over the founders as they gear up to launch their new product.

But the Aptera's creators, Chris Anthony and Steve Fambro, think the world needs a car like theirs. Transportation is the largest source of planet-warming pollution in the United States. The Biden administration has made it a priority to reduce vehicle emissions, and several major automakers have pledged to phase out cars and light trucks with internal combustion engines.

After years of dreaming, maybe the time for driving on sunshine is finally here.

- - -

Anthony and Fambro didn't set out to build a vehicle that could run on solar power. They just wanted to make a more efficient car.

Burning gasoline, it turns out, is not a very efficient way to travel; as much as four-fifths of the energy produced by an internal combustion engine is lost as heat, wasted overcoming wind resistance or used up by fuel pumps and other components, according to Energy Department data.

All-electric vehicles perform much better, but they're still not perfect. About 10 percent of the energy that goes into them is lost converting alternating current from the electrical grid into direct current for the battery. Inefficiencies in the drive system eat up another 20%, and the car must still deal with wind resistance and friction, through regenerative braking systems can reduce some waste.

From top to wheels, the Aptera is designed to eliminate as much waste as possible. Its creators say the car is 13 times more efficient than a gas-powered pickup truck and four times more efficient than the average electric vehicle. At least 90% of the power produced by the Aptera's solar panels goes toward making the vehicle move, the company says.

- - -

The Aptera can be recharged the same way a standard electric vehicle is fueled - by simply plugging it into an outlet. Its extreme efficiency means the car can go 150 miles after just 15 minutes at an ordinary charging station.

But an average electric car would need a solar panel "the size of a semi truck" to go farther than a few miles, Fambro said. Meanwhile, a relatively small number of solar cells can propel the Aptera.

"It only works if you have a super-efficient vehicle," Fambro said. But once he and Anthony realized how far the sun alone could take them, "there was no other plan than to make it a solar vehicle."

- - -

When the first solar vehicle, the tiny Sunmobile, debuted at a General Motors trade show 65 years ago, even its inventors were skeptical about its prospects. GM officials told the magazine Popular Mechanics their creation was of "no practical application to the automotive industry at present."

But that challenge was exactly what appealed to Danish adventurer Hans Tholstrup. Feeling guilty for his fossil-fuel guzzling exploits - flying around the world, driving a speedboat around Australia - he wanted to do something to benefit the planet.

In 1982, Tholstrup and racecar driver Larry Perkins unveiled the "the Quiet Achiever" - a boat-shaped, single-driver construction topped by a 90-square-foot solar array. A tiller served as the steering system, and the wheels and brakes were borrowed from a bicycle. Eating orange slices to stay hydrated and camping by the side of the road, they took 20 days to drive 2,560 miles across the Australian continent. Their average speed was 15 miles per hour.

Tom Snooks, the project's coordinator, recalled Tholstrup comparing the journey to the flight of the Kittyhawk: impractical but inspirational, and a sign of advances to come. "If it will motivate just one more idea and thought in the development of solar power," Tholstrup said, "then the venture will have been well worthwhile."

In 1987, Tholstrup launched the "World Solar Challenge" to encourage others to improve upon his record. Soon solar races were springing up around the globe, attracting competition from car manufacturers and high school students alike. The vehicles evolved from Tholstrup's "bathtub on wheels" to bullet shapes to three-wheeled cars with curved, winglike solar arrays. By 2013 the World Solar Challenge introduced a "cruiser class" competition in an effort to spur development of more commercially viable vehicles.

"It makes for a really fun design challenge," said University of Michigan mechanical engineer Neil Dasgupta, faculty adviser to the school's highly decorated solar car team. "And we've made tremendous advances."

The team's 2017 vehicle, which placed second in the World Solar Challenge, weighed just 420 pounds and averaged almost 50 miles per hour.

Solar cars have to be small and sleek, Dasgupta explained, because of inefficiencies in solar panels. Photovoltaic cells are limited in what wavelengths they can turn into electricity. They don't perform well when they get hot. Even the best solar panels only convert about 23% of the sunlight that hits them into energy. You can get much more power more quickly by simply plugging into a charging station.

Total reliance on solar power also poses practical problems. It means the car can't be parked in a garage or under a tree. Once the battery is full, any additional energy that hits the solar panels is lost.

"This is a niche kind of thing," said Timothy Lipman, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. The Aptera, which seats two, wouldn't work for a large family, a commuter in cloudy Seattle, a plumber who has to lug around equipment.

Advances in solar cars could benefit the broader automotive industry, Lipman said. They might lead to the development of lighter materials and make the case for greater efficiency in electric vehicles. Manufacturers could add solar panels to augment car batteries. Maybe the technology will find use at national parks and remote military installations.

But Lipman thinks it will be difficult for sun-powered vehicles to find broad commercial success. A Chinese manufacturer was still seeking funding to produce its prototype when it ran into financial problems last year. The Dutch champions of the first "cruiser class" race in the World Solar Challenge launched their own start-up, Lightyear One, and aim to start deliveries of their large, four-wheel hatchback at the end of this year. Still, the Lightyear car's price tag, about $180,000, puts it out of reach of most buyers.

Anthony and Fambro know how easy it is to fail. Four years after founding Aptera in 2006, they left the venture amid disagreement with other leadership - auto industry veterans who wanted to build a traditional four-wheeled vehicle to qualify for federal loans. But the money never materialized. The company was liquidated in 2011, and its intellectual property sold.

Business analysts treated the collapse as a case study in the perils of launching an automotive start-up. Cars are more expensive to make than software. Federal regulations are difficult to navigate. Consumers are wary of change.

But Aptera's inventors took a different lesson from that experience: "The traditional design process doesn't allow for breakthroughs," Fambro said. "Because anything that's a breakthrough is seen as something that's polarizing, and they don't allow polarizing things to exit the research clinic."

If the Aptera was going to succeed, they decided, they couldn't make compromises to satisfy a federal requirement or a market-research firm's recommendation. They had to be willing to be different.

"That's the march of technology," Anthony said, before paraphrasing Apple founder Steve Jobs. "People don't know what they need until you show it to them."

- - -

After a decade spent pursuing other ventures, Aptera's creators bought back the company in 2019 and launched a crowdfunding campaign to restart development.

Their timing was good. Electric batteries had gotten much cheaper and lighter. Solar cells had become more efficient. Advances in computing enabled the inventors to simulate the vehicles on their desktops, speeding up the design process. Even the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic spurred creativity, Anthony said.

When Aptera began taking preorders last December, it sold out of itsplanned first batch of 330 vehicles in 24 hours. Almost 7,500 people have now put down deposits for a car.

One of them was Tyler Perkins, the 27-year-old assistant manager of a small airport in Oklahoma City. A technology buff who had been following the company since he was a teenager, he said he was drawn to the Aptera's "funky, radical design" and wanted to make a hopeful bet on tomorrow.

"They're actually like, 'let's build a futuristic car, because if we don't do it no one will,' " Perkins said. "And that's how the future happens."

Concern about climate change already motivated Perkins to become a vegan and drive a hybrid. He wanted to switch to an electric vehicle, but his apartment building offers no charging station. Then the Aptera came on the market. Even without federal tax credits (which only go to four-wheeled electric vehicles) it costs almost $10,000 less than other EVs. Sure it's small, but all he needs is space for himself and his camping gear.

"I think it will work great for me," Perkins said, "as someone who is trying to be as efficient as possible and have a minimal impact on the environment."

Not every Aptera fan fits the stereotype of an avid environmentalist. Nick Field, a 36-year-old accountant in London, is drawn more to the car's long range and high performance; it can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and hit top speeds of 110 mph. As far as he's concerned, the Aptera's low climate impact is just a fringe benefit.

"I'm in the category of, 'I want to enjoy my life,' " Field said. "I just like fast cars. . . . I think it's really cool."

Anthony acknowledged that the Aptera is not for everyone. But it has more appeal than its skeptics give it credit for, he said. The car's high efficiency means it puts less demand on the grid than ordinary electric vehicles. It could be ideal for delivery trucks and Postal Service vehicles, which don't travel far and spend lots of time idling. Outdoor enthusiasts will probably like the option to venture far from charging infrastructure without worrying about fuel. And the notion of parking an Aptera in the sun and returning to a car that has more fuel than when you left it - free, clean fuel - is a powerful idea at a time when the world is looking for transformation.

"We see solar as the main driver of our business," Anthony said. "It enables so many things."

He considered the dreamers who first conceived of solar cars: Tholstrup subsisting on orange slices during his cross-continent journey, engineering students building racecars after school. He thought about the early developers of electric vehicles, who had faith in a future that didn't run on gas. He remembered the investors who shied away from the Aptera's first incarnation, saying "who is going to buy your weird egg-shaped creation?"

"It's the same thing with anybody who does anything first," Anthony said. "It's always: Why would you do that?"

When Aptera hits the road, he'll have his answer.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Cause for concern about voting rights

By ruth marcus
Cause for concern about voting rights


Advance for release Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- In Georgia, state legislators are debating new voting restrictions, including imposing additional ID requirements for absentee voting and eliminating early voting on Sundays, which just happens to be the time for "Souls to the Polls" turnout efforts in Black churches.

South Carolina lawmakers are weighing whether to require that witnesses who certify absentee ballots provide a driver's license or voter identification number. Arizona, Indiana and Mississippi are considering mandating proof of citizenship for voter registration, while legislators in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states are seeking to do away with no-excuse mail-in voting.

In short, in the face of record turnout in the 2020 elections, there are any number of initiatives underway that would make it more difficult to vote - and that would pose particular hurdles for voters of color. Meanwhile, and ominously, the Supreme Court is poised to take up a case that could neuter the remaining key provision of the Voting Rights Act that might be used to strike down these restrictions.

The Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in its 2013ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. That 5-to-4 decision gutted a key provision, known as Section 5, which required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination to obtain approval from the Justice Department before changing voting procedures. In the aftermath of Shelby County, states raced to enact voter ID laws, purge voter rolls, curtail early voting and impose other restrictions.

The demise of Section 5 left voting rights advocates with one other part of the law, Section 2, which doesn't prevent the changes from being made in advance but - at least in theory - prohibits voting practices that abridge minority voting rights.

In a 1980 ruling, the court adopted a grudging interpretation of Section 2, saying it required a showing of "discriminatory purpose." Two years later, Congress amended the law to underscore that the provision applied to any practice that "results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

On Tuesday, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about two voting restrictions from Arizona. The first is a state policy that requires the entire ballot to be thrown out if a vote is cast in the wrong precinct - even if the voter was legally entitled to cast some of the votes, say for federal or statewide office. The second is a law that makes it a crime for most third parties to collect and deliver ballots, a practice attacked by Republicans as "ballot harvesting," and which they argue poses a risk of voter fraud.

The Democratic National Committee, which challenged both restrictions, contends that they have the effect of disenfranchising voters of color. Citing Arizona's "long history of racial discrimination and its continuing effects," the DNC argues that minority voters move more frequently and are twice as likely as White voters to have their ballots rejected because of voting in the wrong precinct.

And while a majority of Arizona voters cast their ballots by mail, voting by mail poses a particular challenge for the state's Native American population, only 18% of whom have access to regular mail service. "Simply put, Arizona's ballot collection ban has never been anything other than a racially-charged tool to suppress minority votes," the DNC argues.

The district court and a federal appeals court panel rejected the DNC's claims, but the en banc 9th Circuit reversed.

What's important in the case is not so much how the justices decide on the out-of-precinct and ballot collection rules. Indeed, the Biden Justice Department advised the court in a Feb. 16 letter that it "does not disagree" with the Trump administration's conclusions that the Arizona provisions did not violate Section 2.

Rather, the significance of the case will be in what standard the court adopts for how to apply Section 2 - which has been most often interpreted in the context of racial gerrymandering - to claims of discriminatory voting practices. This will be the justices' first look at how Section 2 applies to such restrictions.

But more of these laws are coming - and the distinction between a legitimate state attempt to set electoral rules and a restriction that has the effect of disproportionately lessening minority voters' ability to participate in the political process is fact-specific and often difficult to discern. How severe does the impact on minority voters have to be? Should courts look at the impact of the challenged provision alone, or at the totality of the state's voting system and its fairness to minority voters? Does Section 2 even apply to race-neutral "time, place and manner" voting rules?

There's ample reason to be nervous about whether the court's newly bolstered conservative majority will apply a stingy reading of Section 2. The most moderate member of the conservative bloc, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., was the author of the Shelby County ruling. Roberts and his conservative colleagues are inclined to be more deferential to states' authority to regulate their own elections than to claims of discriminatory impact.

Section 2, the NAACP argues in a friend of the court brief, has become "the primary line of defense against both overt and subtle racial discrimination in voting."Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee may show just how strong or weak that defensive line will be.

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Ruth Marcus' email address is

Neera Tanden is a lot more than her tweets

By e.j. dionne jr.
Neera Tanden is a lot more than her tweets


Advance for release Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column by E.J. Dionne, which was also sent out yesterday, can be used over this weekend or in Monday's paper if needed. He is also writing another column that will move Sunday for Monday release on the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). You are welcome to use either or both of these columns.

WASHINGTON -- What if Neera Tanden is not who many Republicans seem to think she is? What if her caustic tweets are not the whole story?

There's a side of Tanden, President Joe Biden's embattled nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, that Republican senators deciding her fate should ponder. Doing so would encourage them to take what will certainly be a politically tough vote on her behalf.

Tanden is a loyal and, yes, sometimes combative Democrat, but she cares far more about policy than politics. And she knows and admires Republicans who feel the same way.

Never was this side of her more dramatically on display than in July 2017, when the Senate faced a vote that would determine whether the Affordable Care Act would live or die.

I was on the phone a lot with Tanden during that battle because she was as invested as anyone in getting health insurance to as many Americans as possible. She had worked on the issue as a young staffer in the Clinton administration and again in the Obama administration.

By the way, it was a sign of the respect around Washington for Tanden's policy chops that even though she had been passionately committed to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign during the bitter Democratic primary in 2008, she was one of the very first Clinton campaign staff members that Barack Obama asked to join his general election effort. Obama saw in her what I hope some Republicans will see: a gifted and practical thinker about policy and how to make government work.

Things did not look good for Obamacare that July. The House had already passed a repeal bill and the Senate seemed on the verge of doing the same. On a critical procedural vote about whether to let the bill move forward, Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) had the courage to vote "no." But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disappointed supporters of the law by voting "yes" to continue the debate while giving a heartfelt and acidic speech about the shortcomings of congressional politics.

It was a dramatic moment because McCain returned to the floor after being diagnosed with brain cancer - and McCain's was the decisive vote. It looked like Obamacare was dead, and McCain came in for some very tough criticism from liberals and the left.

But not from Tanden. When I called her that day, she said she thought the attacks on McCain were wrong. He had not made up his mind on whether to vote for repeal itself, she insisted. She spoke of her respect for McCain and her belief that, in the end, he would save Obamacare.

I trusted Tanden's judgment, partly because of my own long-standing admiration for McCain but also because I knew from experience that she was a shrewd reader of Congress who called things as she saw them.

So when I wrote that day, I resisted the temptation to assail McCain, using the mild word "disappointing" to describe his vote. Then I added: "But McCain could yet advance the vision of the Senate he outlined in his floor speech and rebuke 'the bombastic loudmouths' he condemned by casting a 'No' vote at the crucial moment. Here's hoping this war hero will ultimately choose to strike a blow against everything he said is wrong with Congress."

And ultimately, that's exactly what McCain did. With a famous thumbs-down on the final vote, he saved Obamacare.

I have always been grateful to Tanden not only for journalistic reasons - her information helped me write something that looks, well, pretty good in retrospect - but also, and more important, because she encouraged me to think the best of McCain.

Which is to say that Tanden is anything but a blind partisan.

And in all the talk about Tanden's prolific tweeting, no one is discussing the tweets she sent after Murkowski, Collins and McCain preserved health coverage for tens of millions of Americans. One of them read: "We are all cynical but some times political leaders do the right thing. Thank you @SenJohnMcCain, @lisamurkowski @SenatorCollins."

Tanden specifically praised Murkowski in another tweet before the vote. "On @lisamurkowski, members of the GOP threatened her state and threatened her directly. I don't believe she will fold." Tanden was right about this, too.

I'd like to hope that fair-minded Republican senators - some, including Murkowski, are still undecided as I write - will examine Tanden's whole record and realize that she is a lot more than the sum of her tweets. At a critical moment, she gave a great Republican senator the benefit of the doubt. That's what I think she deserves this time around.

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E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Even after getting vaccinated, many consumers won't rush back to the malls. That's good for their budgets, but bad for the economy.

By michelle singletary
Even after getting vaccinated, many consumers won't rush back to the malls. That's good for their budgets, but bad for the economy.


Advance for release Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: In 12th graf, updates clarify and streamline ("Before the pandemic...")


WASHINGTON -- Even though most of us can't wait to get the coronavirus vaccine, many consumers still wouldn't feel comfortable venturing out afterward to splurge at their favorite stores.

Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults said they would avoid shopping at local businesses or dining inside restaurants despite being vaccinated, according to a new national survey of 2,305 U.S. adults conducted by YouGov on behalf of Bankrate. Contrast that with the 76 percent of Americans who say they would be very or somewhat comfortable going to the mall or eating out after receiving the coronavirus vaccine.

It's a prudent move to stay cautious, as covid cases are still rising in many areas, new variants are cropping up and the number of reported covid-19 deaths has surpassed 500,000 in the U.S.

But the economy can't fully recover until consumers do what they do best in America. Consumer spending can lift the economy overall, but it would be a shame if people went back to normal and forgot some important financial lessons forced on them because of the pandemic.

"Clearly, businesses of many shapes and sizes are in need of or are eager to embrace the consumers that they've been missing for so long," says Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. "And we've seen enterprises of all kinds go belly up during this time. And so it is important, obviously, for the consumer to reengage. But spending needs to be sustainable for the individuals. If consumers go overboard, then they're going to run into an economic recovery hangover of their own."

Hamrick is concerned, as I am, that the broader need for businesses to put people back to work so that they can feed their families, pay for their housing, and hopefully have some money left over to save for their future financial needs will conflict with the necessity that many people continue being frugal.

Only 39% of Americans could cover an unexpected $1,000 expense from their savings, such as a car repair or emergency room bill, according to a separate survey from released last month.

The overwhelming majority would end up in debt: 38% of U.S. adults said they would have to borrow the money; 18% would need to use a credit card they couldn't pay off right away, and 12% would borrow from family or friends. The remaining folks would reduce spending to find the money they need to handle the financial emergency.

For those spendthrifts whose incomes weren't impacted by the coronavirus crisis, the pandemic pause created an opportunity for them to change their ways.

Since last March, as covid-19 crashed an almost decade-long consumer spending spree, people attending the monthly financial workshops I hold - now virtually - have testified about getting out of debt at last due to being stuck at home. Folks finally have emergency funds. They've paid off their auto loans early or are contributing to a 529 college investment fund for their children.

Just two months into 2021, and workshop participants who follow the financial principles I've taught them reported paying off close to $200,000 in debt.

Before the pandemic, consumer credit card debt grew for eight consecutive years, reaching a record high of $829 billion in 2019, according to data collected by Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus. After the coronavirus hit, debt wasn't just dropping - people were also using less of their credit lines, Experian found. The average consumer credit utilization ratio (how much you currently owe divided by your credit limit) dropped to 25%, the lowest it's been in at least 10 years, according to Experian.

The U.S. personal savings rate soared in April of last year, reaching nearly 34%. It's fallen since then, dropping to 13.7% in December, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

"Americans aren't sure when they will return to normal, pre-COVID levels of activity for things like dining in at restaurants and attending in-person gatherings outside their household," according to a recent Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index poll. "For both items, around one in four say they don't know when they will do this, and then people are split on whether the signifier is when they/their circle are vaccinated when health officials say it is safe, or if they have already done this."

Meanwhile, Hamrick said he's also worried that many consumers, once they feel safer to venture out to retail stores and restaurants, will engage in "revenge spending" to make up for the isolation they've experienced since the novel coronavirus hit the U.S.

Parents will give their children even bigger birthday parties. Families will take expensive vacations. Holiday spending at the end of this year will soar as people overspend after having to celebrate giftless with relatives on Zoom.

"We need to have our own social safety net," Hamrick said. "I want to remind people that they should try to prioritize their savings and to pay down debt."

The have nots were struggling before the pandemic, and business shutdowns and slowdowns make their financial situation even more precarious. They have no choice but to continue to pull back on their spending.

But you - the fortunate ones who can afford to save - shouldn't relapse to retail therapy. Keep paying off those credit card balances. Scale back that big wedding. When things get back to normal, you shouldn't rush to the malls. You were scared straight during the pandemic, and that was the best thing for your financial security.

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Why do we keep walling ourselves off?

By fareed zakaria
Why do we keep walling ourselves off?


Advance for release Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, and thereafter

(For Zakaria clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Fareed Zakaria

WASHINGTON -- Congress began hearings this week on the security failures that led to the Capitol being invaded by an armed mob on Jan. 6. That's appropriate and useful, but my fear is that these kinds of inquiries almost always end up adding more security procedures, putting up more barricades and making American government ever more imperial, armed and removed from its citizens.

I remember living in Washington briefly during the 1980s. It was easy to enter Congress and walk amid the grand rooms and imposing statues, occasionally bumping into senators. Even the White House was relatively accessible, as it had always been designed to be.

No more. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1998 Capitol shooting and 9/11, citizens who wish to go to the Capitol must go through a tightly controlled tour that begins in a vast underground "visitor center," where they are forced to watch a movie. (Can't we watch the movie at home?) Over the same period, ugly barricades were thrown up around the White House, with parts of Pennsylvania Avenue blocked off. Since the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, even more barriers went up around the White House. In the wake of Jan. 6, it is surely going to get worse.

I understand the need for security, but in a democracy that has to be balanced against the need for openness and accessibility. Pierre L'Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C., designed the city's broad avenues so that people could always see the country's great government buildings, which he believed were symbols of democracy. The country spent extravagantly building the Capitol, persevering in its construction even during the Civil War because it was a monument for its citizens, not an office building for the politicians.

The situation is much worse abroad. The United States' diplomatic outposts used to be handsome buildings in the center of cities where people could meet and events were held. I recall going to watch classic Hollywood movies sponsored by the U.S. Information Service at the stunning seaside consulate in Mumbai. But that architectural jewel has been sold off, as have others. U.S. diplomats now often work in fortress-like buildings, behind concrete blast walls, with multiple layers of security, rarely encountering the people of the country they are in. If you want to know why, after 20 years and trillions of dollars, the United States is not well understood or loved in Iraq or Afghanistan, visit the U.S. embassies in their capitals.

The United States has more of an imperial apparatus than many actual empires did. For decades, even when London ruled the world, anyone could walk right up to 10 Downing Street, the home and office of the British prime minister. After a string of IRA bombings in the 1980s, the government installed simple gates, blocking off one small street. Even the French, who are partial to grandeur, have a modest set of low, movable barriers around the Élysée Palace, which houses the president.

The way American politics works today, you are rewarded only for advocating more security. So, after 9/11, embassies and consulates around the world turned down hundreds of thousands of qualified visitors because the officials denying the applications pay no political costs for doing so. But had they let in one person who committed a terrorist attack, they would have been hauled in front of Congress and crucified. The same mentality explains the massive numbers of documents that are routinely classified. As a friend who works in government explained to me, "No one has ever been fired for classifying things as secret." The result: massive over-classification, which limits information-sharing within government and with the public. (Former CIA director Michael Hayden recalls that he once got a top secret message that read, "Merry Christmas.")

This hyper-securitization is part of what the scholar Paul Light calls the "thickening" of government, the adding of layers and layers of hierarchy and more procedures -- which creates a more closed, bureaucratic and inflexible organization. He writes, "COVID-19 showed just how far Americans must go to find accountability in the federal hierarchy. Health care heroes waiting for personal protective equipment faced 18 layers between the top of the Department of Health and Human Services and the PPE at the Strategic National Stockpile. Small businesses waiting for Paycheck Protection support faced 16 layers between the top of the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration's program office."

If you are trying to understand why the America performs so poorly in situations such as the pandemic and is also so distrusted by its citizens, this might be a crucial part of the answer. The U.S. government now resembles a dinosaur -- a large, lumbering beast with much body and little brain, increasingly well-protected but distant from ordinary people and unresponsive to the real challenges that confront the nation.

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Fareed Zakaria's email address is

Unprecedented, untargeted 'stimulus'

By george f. will
Unprecedented, untargeted 'stimulus'


Advance for release Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, and thereafter

(For WILL clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By George F. Will

EDITOR'S NOTE: The House is expected to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Friday or Saturday. If the House passes, please update the sentence in the 4th graf to "has passed" sted "will almost certainly pass."

WASHINGTON -- When Andrew Jackson became president in 1829, the national debt was $58.4 million, and Old Hickory was as frugal as he was disagreeable -- very -- so his Treasury Department announced that on Jan. 1, 1835, the debt would be zero. Almost: It was $33,733.05.

In today's dollars, that would be about $1 million, which is what the federal government this fiscal year will pay in interest on the national debt every 1.4 seconds. If the government were not paying near-zero interest rates on its borrowing, then rolling over the $21.8 trillion national debt, which recently rose above 100% of GDP, might be a severe challenge. At whatever interest rate, the debt threatens to crowd out crucial spending for national defense, science, etc. But perhaps today's low rates are not just the new normal. Perhaps they are going to be, unlike the Roman Empire and every other human contrivance, eternal. Perhaps.

The numbers involved in the federal government's finances have suddenly become radically unlike anything in the nation's prior peacetime experience. The Manhattan Institute's Brian Riedl notes that in combating the Depression after the stock market crash of October 1929, presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt increased federal spending between 1930 and 1940 by 6% of GDP. In recessions between 1945 and 2008, Riedl says, "stimulus legislation typically approximated 1 percent of GDP." Between 2008 and 2013, the cumulative $1.7 trillion in stimulus measures was approximately 3% of the multiyear GDP. Today, if Congress adds, as Democrats desire, another $1.9 trillion to the $3.4 trillion already passed, this spending would amount to 26% of GDP in just 12 months. And one-fifth of the national debt accumulated in the 186 years since the debt was almost eliminated will have been added in 12 months.

Riedl, a student of ancient (or so it suddenly seems) U.S. fiscal history, remembers that the 2009 stimulus included a $25 addition to weekly unemployment checks. In 2020, Democrats wanted $600 bonuses, and Republicans were considered skinflints because they favored only $300 -- 12 times the 2009 sum. During the Great Recession, the typical family of four (a family with income below the $150,000 threshold where the phaseout begins) received tax rebates of $2,600 ($1,800 in 2008 and $800 in 2009). If legislation the Biden administration wants and the House of Representatives will almost certainly pass becomes law, a typical family of four will have received $11,400 in 12 months. In previous deep recessions, state and local governments received up to $200 billion in federal aid. Today Democrats want to add $350 billion to the $360 billion approved last year.

Just 13 years ago, President George W. Bush, who was not notably averse to spending, vetoed a farm bill because it increased spending by $20 billion. Today, Republican frugality is expressed in wanting to add only $600 billion to the $3.4 trillion enacted last year.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Greenwood, chief economist at Invesco in London, and Steve H. Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, note that by the Federal Reserve's broadest measure of the quantity of money, the annual growth of the money supply averaged 5.8% over the 10 years from 2010 to 2019. Since last February, however, the quantity of money has increased 26%. And, they say, "we already know that the money supply will likely increase by at least another $2.3 trillion over the current year" -- nearly 12%, which is twice as fast as the 2010-2019 average.

Should we call all this "stimulus"? The economy's problem is not inadequate aggregate demand. The surge in the saving rate signals pent-up demand poised to erupt when vaccinations allow the economy to open up and begin supplying demands, from restaurant meals to airplane tickets. A letter writer to the Wall Street Journal illustrates the folly of a gusher of untargeted government spending:

"How can sending checks to a retired couple whose combined income has remained steady at $150,000 a year in any way address the problems we currently are facing? A household with school-age children and adults who are now working at home and drawing the same (if not higher) salaries they did in 2019 would be much better served by programs aimed at getting schools reopened rather than receiving a stimulus check."

A trillion seconds ago was 31,710 years ago, which was 31,709 years before Congress decided that it is safe to increase federal spending in trillion-dollar tranches. Remember Ernest Hemingway's last line of "The Sun Also Rises": "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

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George Will's email address is

There's nothing conservative about CPAC

By michael gerson
There's nothing conservative about CPAC


Advance for release Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, and thereafter

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Asking Conservative Political Action Conference attendees for their views on conservatism is like asking arsonists to lecture on fire safety. For decades, the fondest hope of the kind of agitators attracted by this annual event has been a Republican president who shares the breadth of their grievance, the depth of their anger and the fervor of their conspiratorial delusions. In Donald Trump, they finally found their man. He will be welcomed this year -- as he will be for the rest of his life -- as the god-king of Crazy Town.

The problem is that Trump has extended his realm to include state Republican Party institutions across the country, which now see their primary role as the censure of sanity. The vast majority of elected Republicans have demonstrated their cravenness by falling meekly into line. And the vast majority of Republican voters seem to view Crazy Town as preferable to what they believe is the (BEG ITAL)other(END ITAL) place: the socialist, "PC," police-free Republic of Liberalistan.

There is no doubt that negative partisanship -- the making of political choices mainly out of contempt for the other side -- has increased the power of activists in our system of government. Any group -- even one with views outside the mainstream -- that can seize control of a political party can count on the broad support of partisans for that party. So plenty of supporters of John McCain's and Mitt Romney's presidential candidacies, when faced with a binary choice on the ballot, voted for Trump's election -- and for his reelection, despite a failed and divisive first term.

This dynamic is dangerous because politics has a morally instructive role. When those holding opinions outside the mainstream gain high office, their opinions are inevitably mainstreamed. Views espoused by an extremist at CPAC merely reinforce the views of other extremists. Views declared from behind a lectern with a presidential seal on it are at least partially normalized. If we believe that moral leadership can improve a country, it follows that immoral leadership can debase it.

An example: Many Americans have an uninformed or mixed opinion about undocumented migrants. When an American president compares such migrants to vermin, slanders them as rapists and criminals, shatters their families at the border, and condemns their children to cages, Americans are given permission for dehumanization. Other GOP politicians are given a green light for demonization. White supremacists are confirmed and emboldened in their hatred. Not just the politics of the country but also the character of the country are poisoned.

This is one reason that right-wing populists can never be true conservatives. If intellectual conservatism means anything, it means one generation has the moral duty to cultivate humanizing beliefs and habits in the next. Conservatives do not believe that human beings come pre-wired for character. Children must be carefully taught to know what is right, informed by millennia of reflection on the matter. They must be instructed to do what is right through example and habituation. No form of traditional conservatism would urge people to follow their destructive passions or indulge their baser instincts.

Some might object that such a conservatism no longer exists as a mass movement in American politics. True, but beside the point. This is not a political platform. It is a moral framework to make sense of life and politics. Claiming it is irrelevant is like saying the Pythagorean theorem is outdated.

By a conservative standard, what should we make of the activists and participants at CPAC? It is worth noting that many who attend each year are young. What moral messages is an older generation transmitting to the next?

With many of the sessions premised on the big lie of a stolen presidential election, young attendees will certainly be taught that truth is infinitely malleable in service to ideology.

They will surely be instructed that their political opponents are really ruthless, inhuman enemies, bent on canceling and silencing them by any means necessary.

By the systematic downplaying of the recent attack on the Capitol -- and probably some wink and nudge approval -- they will learn that the recourse to violence is permissible in politics, and that democracy is only valuable if it serves their ends.

From the attendance of eager presidential hopefuls such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, they will learn that exclusion, deception and the maximization of White grievance are the future of the GOP, and that encouraging sedition is not a shameful disqualification for the Oval Office.

From Trump's deification they will learn that civility is for losers, that compassion is for suckers, that misogyny can be fun, that strength requires brutality and that racism makes for good politics. They will learn that deadly incompetence, based on lies and lunacy and costing countless lives, means nothing. They will learn that the Constitution can be shredded in the pursuit of raw power and that populism must be rowdy enough and transgressive enough to break a few windows and kill a few policemen.

Call this what you will, but it has nothing to do with conservatism.

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Michael Gerson's email address is

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