May 20, 2020

Axios AM

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Good Wednesday morning. Situational awareness: With the MLB season still on hold, the Washington Nationals will unveil their World Series championship rings during a "virtual" ceremony Sunday on MASN, MLB Network and online. (MLB.com)

  • CNN headline as I wake up: "50TH STATE, CONNECTICUT, BEGINS REOPENING."

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1 big thing: Airlines pack in passengers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With restaurants and other businesses cut to half occupancy (or less), airlines are packing customers to near capacity, Axios Markets editor Dion Rabouin writes.

  • Why it matters: The practice shows how a lack of a national policy allows certain companies — like airlines — to continue to put Americans at risk for exposure to COVID-19 while other companies miss out on revenue by adhering to local regulations.

How it works: In March, most airlines reduced the number of flights by as much as 80% through the end of May. As travel has picked up, carriers have simply loaded new passengers onto the few remaining scheduled flights.

  • Airlines could reinstate laid off pilots and restart flights to accommodate newly increased demand, but have chosen not to.

What's happening: Delta instituted a rule "capping seating at 50% capacity in first class and 60% capacity in the main cabin and keeping middle seats blocked."

  • American Airlines has a policy to "not assign 50% of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats." However, it does not put a hard cap on bookings and maintains the right to "use those middle seats when necessary."
  • American representatives have told passengers that flights will only be booked at 50% capacity. But it is not enforcing that cap and has been operating flights with nearly every seat filled.
  • United said it will allow passengers to rebook or receive a travel credit if they end up on flights that are close to full capacity.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, sent a letter this week to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her department to issue national social-distancing guidelines for aviation.

  • The guidance "should clearly lead the airlines to either keep middle or adjacent seats open, or limit capacity of aircraft to a level that allows adequate social distancing," Cantwell says.
  • Her letter referenced many outraged tweets from passengers on packed flights.

The big picture: Airline revenue was down 98% for the week ended May 10 compared to the year before, according to trade group Airlines for America.

  • TSA agents screened 253,807 passengers Sunday — off 90% from a year ago.

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2. 📉 New overnight: Prolonged U.S. baby bust

U.S. births continued to fall last year, leading to the fewest newborns in 35 years, AP's Mike Stobbe writes.

  • The CDC said births fell roughly 1% from 2018, to about 3.7 million.

Why it matters: The decline continues a prolonged national "baby bust" that's been going on for more than a decade.

  • Some experts believe the pandemic will suppress the numbers further because of anxiety about the future.

The big picture: Aside from a one-year uptick in 2014, U.S. births have been falling every year since 2007, when the Great Recession hit.

3. Half of U.S. counties lack virus testing

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

More than half of U.S. counties don’t have a single coronavirus testing site, according to a recent report by Castlight, a health software company, Caitlin Owens writes in Axios Vitals.

  • Why it matters: That leaves a wide swath of the country — particularly rural areas — vulnerable to undetected coronavirus outbreaks, especially as lockdown measures ease.
  • Asking people to travel long distances to get a coronavirus test is both unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

54% of all counties don’t have a testing site.

  • Among counties with 50,000 or more people, 38% don’t have any testing sites.
  • Among rural counties with fewer than 10,000 residents, 68% don’t have any.

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4. Pictures of America
Photo: Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Above: A protester with an image of Ahmaud Arbery on a mask rallied in Brunswick, Ga., to protest Arbery's killing while jogging in a white subdivision.

Below: As storms hammered Chicago, the Farnsworth House — the modernist masterpiece in Plano, Ill. — is surrounded by floodwaters from the Fox River.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune via Getty Images
5. Pompeo held Madison Dinners
Photo: NBC News

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan, have held about two dozen "Madison Dinners" in the historic Diplomatic Reception Rooms — on the government's dime — for CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political heavyweights and ambassadors, NBC News reports.

  • NBC obtained a master invitation list of nearly 500 invitees (not necessarily attendees).
  • 14% were diplomats or foreign officials ... 30% work in politics/government ... 29% were corporate ... 23% were in media or entertainment.
  • 39% of the media figures were from Fox News.
  • Every House or Senate member was a Republican.

Why it matters: This is an additional target for the Hill after Friday's firing of State's inspector general.

  • When the dinners started shortly after Pompeo took office in 2018, two State Department officials told NBC that "concerns were raised to the State Department's legal adviser, who they said responded by saying events hosted by the secretary should be related to foreign policy."
  • Several congressional committees have been looking into the dinners.

The response: State's Morgan Ortagus told NBC that the dinners are "a world-class opportunity to discuss the mission of the State Department and the complex foreign policy matters facing our exceptional nation."

  • "Invited guests have included many foreign diplomats, thought leaders, academics, government leaders at many levels, business leaders, Members of Congress and the media — each of whom has a stake in America and its leadership in the world."

Keep reading.

6. Zuckerberg launches Facebook Shops

Photo: Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg personally announced that Facebook is launching a new online shopping marketplace called Facebook Shops, Axios media trends expert Sara Fischer writes.

  • Why it matters: This is Facebook's first step toward creating a competitor to more established online marketplaces, like eBay or Amazon.

The big picture: The move comes as people are increasingly migrating to e-commerce during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Zuckerberg said: "A lot of these aren't just businesses, they're pillars of our communities that people have poured their lives into. ... One of the ways small businesses are surviving during this period is moving online. I think this is going to be a big part of the future of commerce anyway, but it's more important right now."

The state of play: Facebook Shops will be free for businesses across Facebook and Instagram, allowing them to choose the products they want to feature and customize the look and feel of their shop with a cover image and accent colors.

  • Zuckerberg said Facebook Shops will eventually include augmented reality, allowing customers to try items on from home.

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7. Biden on Trump: "C'mon, man!"

Screenshot via Yahoo News

Joe Biden, at a Yahoo News virtual town hall with chef José Andrés, ripped President Trump for not wearing a mask: "I can't walk outside my house" without one.

P.S. ... New Biden senior adviser: Karine Jean-Pierre, chief public affairs officer for MoveOn.org, who will work on outreach to black voters. (WashPost)

8. Susan Rice email declassified
Obtained by Politico

Acting DNI Richard Grenell has declassified the full text of an email that memorializes former national security adviser Susan Rice's account of an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 5, 2017, in which top Obama officials discussed Michael Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador, Politico reports.

  • Erin Pelton, a spokesperson for Rice, said the email "confirms what she and others have indicated all along: that the Obama administration had legitimate counter-intelligence concerns about National Security Advisor-designate Flynn’s communications with Russia."

Go deeper.

9. Sneak peek: Sen. Josh Hawley vs. China

Sen. Josh Hawley talks to reporters May 5. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Reuters

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) will lambaste China on the Senate floor today, arguing that the international order must be ripped up to avoid America taking "second place to the imperialists in Beijing," Axios World editor Dave Lawler writes.

  • From Hawley's speech: "Now we must recognize that the economic system designed by Western policy makers at the end of the Cold War does not serve our purposes in this new era."

Why it matters: Hawley’s star has risen fast, and the 40-year-old freshman senator is often discussed as a 2024 presidential prospect. He’s betting that Trump’s populist nationalism and hawkishness on China aren’t passing phenomena, but the future of the Republican Party.

Between the lines: Hawley is one of a few prominent Republicans — among them Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — building intellectual architecture around the fire and fury of Trump’s foreign policy. 

10. Joe Rogan = $100 million man

Photo: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

"The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast will move exclusively to Spotify, Rogan announced on social media, in a deal that the Wall Street Journal says is worth more than $100 million.

What I'm hearing: So much of what Spotify has done in podcasting (including The Ringer) is non-exclusive, but Rogan is walking away from Apple downloads.

  • Investors loved it.

A top media executive tells me: "[A] hit exclusive product looks great — at least until we find out they overpaid, or if Apple considers it Pearl Harbor and starts locking up everybody else."

Mike Allen

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