May 16, 2020

Axios AM

Happy Saturday! Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,282 words ... 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Most states slowly making progress
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins. Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Danielle Alberti/Axios

Most states are progressing on two key criteria for safely reopening parts of their economies: They’re testing more people and finding fewer infections, Axios visual journalist Andrew Witherspoon and health care editor Sam Baker report.

  • Why it matters: The U.S. has to get the existing outbreak under control before we can ease up on social distancing, and manage the ensuing risk of new outbreaks. Most of the country seems to be moving in the right direction.

This analysis compares states' performance on two important metrics from the Trump administration’s reopening guidelines — total caseloads, and the percentage of all coronavirus tests that come back positive.

  • The number of total cases matters because, well, we need to know how many cases there are, or at least have a good idea. And to ease off on social distancing, that number needs to be falling.
  • The percentage of tests that come back positive helps put the total caseload in perspective.
  • If the percentage is too high, it probably just means you’re not testing enough people. If you’re doing more tests and your case count is falling, that percentage should go down — ideally below 10%, per the World Health Organization.

Where it stands: 32 states are moving in the right direction on both fronts.

  • Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey are all toward the front of the pack — another indication that the hardest-hit regions in the country are turning a corner.
  • The Midwest also makes a strong showing: The most improved states include Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
  • The South is bringing up the rear. Arkansas performed the worst in this analysis, getting significantly worse on both metrics.
  • Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina are moving away from — not toward — the benchmarks for a safe reopening.

The big picture: This is a snapshot. A state performing well on these metrics today doesn't mean it'll keep performing well, or that it’s in any way immune from a second wave of infection. It definitely doesn’t mean the state has beaten the coronavirus.

  • It means things are getting better, right now.

This graphic only shows states' progress on two of the key measures states are advised to use before they start to reopen.

  • Under the Trump administration guidelines, states should also have a decline in people with flu-like illnesses and fewer COVID-like symptoms over 14 days. In addition, hospitals should be able to treat all patients without crisis care, and there should be a "robust testing program" for health care workers.

Between the lines: We excluded six states, either because of problems with their data or because they have fewer than 10 cases overall — too small a sample to helpfully track changes.

  • Virginia had been juking the stats, as The Atlantic reported, by including antibody tests when it reported its percentage of positive cases.
  • That's misleading — a way to make the case count look smaller.
  • On Thursday, the day after The Atlantic article, the state said it would stop.

The bottom line ... Take the data points together, with all the appropriate caveats, and the picture is pretty consistent: Led by big improvements in some of the hardest-hit areas, much of the country is moving slowly in the right direction.

2. Deadlines start now for safe voting in November

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Deadlines begin this month for states to figure out how to hold safe elections this fall, when the coronavirus will still be spreading, Stef Kight reports.

  • Why it matters: In the next few months, decisions by state and federal courts and lawmakers, governors and local election officials will determine how Americans cast their ballots in the middle of a pandemic.

Federal aid for expanded election processes is in limbo. Lawsuits are flying. And the clock is ticking.

  • Some states need to start building out online voter registration or absentee ballot application systems this month, according to a new report by the Brennan Center.
  • States may need to place orders for ballot printing and envelopes by mid-June.
  • And when it comes to finding and training election judges, “this isn't a November or October or even September issue. This is a June issue,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Axios.

Marc Elias, a well-known Democratic elections lawyer who was general counsel for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, tells Axios that by his estimation, there have already been more election lawsuits this year than in all of 2016: "What COVID has done is pour gasoline on a fire."

  • He's involved in voting rights lawsuits in 16 different states — including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas.
  • He's seeking free postage for absentee ballots and changes to signature matching laws.

The Republican Party is invested in election-related court fights in 13 states, according to its recently launched "Protect the Vote" website.

  • But it's coming at the issue from the other direction — by making sure remote voting doesn't become too easy, which the party says could lead to voter fraud.

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3. Pictures of America
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Gavin Roberts, 10, attends the funeral of his father, Charles "Rob" Roberts, 45, a beloved police officer in Glen Ridge, N.J., who died after contracting the coronavirus on duty.

  • "Thank you for keeping him safe for 20 years," Roberts' father, Ned, said to his son's fellow officers as he fought through tears. "Honor Rob by staying positive and reaching out to others." 

Roberts, who grew up nearby and had dreamed of being a policeman, was posthumously promoted to sergeant, and his family received his badge, reported.

  • He'll now be remembered as Sgt. Charles Roberts.
Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP

Yasmine Protho, 18, graduates with nine other classmates, with limited family attending, at Chattahoochee County High School in Cusseta, Ga.

  • The school set up staggered graduation times so that all the graduates, a few at a time, could walk the stage and get videotaped in Panther Stadium.
4. Trump touts "super-duper missile"
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Pentagon officials presented President Trump with the flag of the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the armed services, during a short Oval Office event, AP reports.

  • Trump said: "We have a — I call it the 'super-duper missile.' And I heard the other night, 17 times faster than what they have right now."
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP
5. 🧼 Catch up quick
Quincy, Ill., in 1969. Photo: Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

🛍️ J.C. Penney, founded by James Cash Penney in 1902, "filed for bankruptcy, punctuating decades of decline and failed turnaround plans for the once ubiquitous mainstay of America’s shopping malls." Bloomberg

✈️ TSA is "preparing to begin checking passengers’ temperatures at roughly a dozen airports as soon as next week." The Wall Street Journal

💰 House Democrats' $3 trillion coronavirus rescue package, the HEROES Act, passed by 208-199, but is expected to die in the Senate. Go deeper

🥾 "State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was fired by President Trump in a late-night ouster. Speaker Pelosi warned of a "dangerous pattern of retaliation" against federal watchdogs. The Washington Post

How it's playing ... N.Y. Times, "When Shoppers Venture Out, What Will Be Left?"

6. 🎮 1 smile to go: Recession-proof company

Screenshot from "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," via Nintendo

The Japan-based video game giant Nintendo — founded in 1889 as a playing-card company, and responsible for household names like Mario, Donkey Kong and Pokémon — announced a profit jump amid the pandemic:

  • In March, Nintendo "not only sold more units of their Switch console than during its launch in 2017, but sold the most consoles in a month for any platform in a decade," the WashPost's Jon Irwin writes.

"Animal Crossing: New Horizons" is "the latest in a series of games that compel the player to plant flowers, catch bugs in nets and exist in a town inhabited by charming (and sometimes cranky) animal neighbors."

  • "The desire to escape and the need to be indoors combined perfectly; a marketing A.I. couldn’t devise a product better suited to" social distancing.
  • "In 11 days, 'New Horizons' sold over 11 million copies worldwide."

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