News Brief: Lockdown Orders, Senate Returns To D.C., Saudi Oil

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 2:08 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So towards the end of April, President Trump said he expected COVID-19 would kill up to 60,000 Americans.

NOEL KING, HOST:

But now he says that number will likely be higher. Here's the president at a Fox News town hall last night.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to lose anywhere from 75,000, 80,000 to 100,000 people. That's a horrible thing. We shouldn't lose one person over this.

KING: Now, we should note that's on the low end of what the White House Coronavirus Task Force is estimating. They said this virus could kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people in the United States. At the same time, more states are moving to reopen their economies, and cellphone data shows that people are starting to travel more.

GREENE: And we want to talk about that with NPR science correspondent Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So as we hear about this death toll going up, cellphone data has become crucial in terms of tracking how people are behaving. What are researchers actually learning from it?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the cellphone data is used to track movement in states all across the country. And it seems there's a lot more movement out there. I spoke to Lei Zhang (ph). He's a researcher at the University of Maryland. He's actually analyzing mobile device location data - so this cellphone data - from millions of devices. He looks at a bunch of different metrics, including the number of trips people make, how far they travel. Now it's anonymized data, so he doesn't know who they are. He just knows where they are. And from this data, a 100-point social distancing index is created. And when he looked at some of the states that reopened some businesses last Friday May 1, he saw a drop in their social distancing scores. And he also sees even in some states that have not lifted any restrictions, such as Maryland, big changes there, too.

LEI ZHANG: If we just look at last Friday May 1 in terms of the social distancing index, it went down from a 60 to 47. What this is suggesting is that fewer people are staying home. People are making a lot more - about 30% more - trips. It was almost like people were waiting for May 1 to get out.

AUBREY: So people just want to be on the go.

GREENE: Yeah. It sounds like - and I just want to underscore this. This is not just showing this happening in states that are opening up. There are places where there are still restrictions in place and people are moving a lot more despite that.

AUBREY: That's right. Zhang's data suggests this, certainly in the states that have begun to reopen. He points to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee. Now, there are some states where the social distancing index remains high. He points to Massachusetts, as well as the New York area. But he says nationally, the reopening in some states seems to be influencing the behavior of people everywhere.

ZHANG: We are observing major changes in mobility behavior and decrease in social distancing.

AUBREY: Now, this started a few weeks ago, and it is now really accelerating.

GREENE: Well, how worried are health officials about this?

AUBREY: Well, I spoke to Richard Besser. He's a physician who used to lead emergency preparedness efforts at the CDC. He's now president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an NPR funder. He says, you know, this is not unusual. Early on, people are vigilant, but then they can get tired, let their guard down.

RICHARD BESSER: I worry that in some parts of the country people are starting to forget why these measures were put in place in the first place. The federal government has lifted their guidelines, and I worry that some people are thinking that means it's OK to go back to business as usual. It is not.

AUBREY: You know, the guidelines that the administration has given to states make it clear that during these early phases, we are supposed to maintain social distancing, not gather in groups of more than 10, and we should minimize nonessential travel.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, David.

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GREENE: All right. So the U.S. Senate is going to be back in session today. This is the first time the upper chamber has convened since March.

KING: And many senators are at high risk for COVID-19 because of their ages. Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been pushing them to get back to work. Here he is talking to WKYX radio in Kentucky last Friday.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: My view is if the doctors and nurses show up and people in the grocery stores manning the grocery stores show up so that we can keep the food supply going, the Senate can show up.

GREENE: OK. So senators show up. What exactly are they going to be doing? What is on their agenda? Let's ask NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So Mitch McConnell, others, say it's time. It's time for the Senate to come back and get to work in person. What are they going to be doing?

GRISALES: So that is a point of contention. McConnell today has a vote scheduled on the inspector general of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He wants the Senate to take up other nominees of President Trump. Meanwhile, Chuck Schumer - he's the minority leader - he says the Senate should be focused on coronavirus aid and relief, not these nominations. But McConnell wants new legislation on that aid to include new liability protections for businesses, and that's something Democrats are opposed to. They want hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments that are facing shortfalls. So the return to regular business highlights how these negotiations have stalled over a next package.

GREENE: OK. So we're going to see that play out in the Senate. Remind us, is the House coming back as well this week?

GRISALES: No. The Democratic-led House reversed course. They had planned to return today but postponed those plans. And that was after hearing from the attending physician. Of course, the House is much larger, so it would bring hundreds more people to the Capitol. And now they're weighing a plan to return as early as next week, but, again, they're consulting with the attending physician to see how they can safely do that. They're holding some hearings in the meantime. And, of course, they say they'll adjust plans if there's a deal reached on another wave of coronavirus relief funding.

GREENE: OK. I mean, you mentioned consulting physicians to see how safely you can do this. What about the Senate? Are they making adjustments to keep those lawmakers safe and prevent the spread of this virus?

GRISALES: They are issuing new health guidelines. Mitch McConnell shared those with his colleagues on Friday. This is from the attending physician. And those include avoiding gatherings, wearing masks when possible, maintaining 6 feet of distance, limiting staff and visitors in their offices and taking their temperatures before arriving. But we should note these are just suggestions, and there won't be widespread testing.

GREENE: Yeah. What do health experts say about these measures? I mean, do they go nearly far enough?

GRISALES: They say no. I spoke with Dr. David Relman. He's a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. And he said he thought the plan was, quote, "crazy" and the measures should be mandatory, not voluntary. Let's take a listen.

DAVID RELMAN: In this particular case, these essential workers are not embracing the known measures that will reduce risks down to some reasonable level for them. I think it's capricious and dangerous.

GRISALES: Dr. Relman noted that the average age of the Senate is over 60, and several senators are over 80. And we know with coronavirus, risk increases with age. But then again, this lack of widespread testing is part of a national problem. But they may not know there's an issue in these closed quarters until it's too late because of the incubation period of this illness. The Trump administration over the weekend offered a thousand tests for Congress, but McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a rare joint statement passed. They said that those tests should go to front-line workers. And that means the Senate will be running quite a gamble when they convene this afternoon. And they may not find out how risky that is until weeks from now.

GREENE: All right. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

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GREENE: So this fleet of oil tankers from Saudi Arabia is making its way to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

KING: Yeah. And normally, this would be business as usual, but these are not normal times. Oil prices are at historic lows, and some U.S. oil producers are saying they might go under. So they are pressuring President Trump to block the arrival of the Saudi oil.

GREENE: All right. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is here. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: Start off, if you can, by telling us why these ships are heading this way.

NORTHAM: Well, to sell the oil that's on board. You know, the Saudis started filling these super large tankers in late March, and this was at a time when the kingdom was on a production spree. You know, it was pumping millions of extra barrels each day to try and capture market share and was flooding the marketplace with crude. So there are about 18 very large crude carriers that are really in a convoy coming from Saudi Arabia. And each vessel is carrying about 2 million barrels of oil, so - the math - you know, about 36 million barrels in all. And it's - believe much of the oil has been purchased by U.S. refineries at really rock bottom prices and that some of it is being sent on spec. The Saudis are so intent on getting this oil to the Gulf Coast, David, that analysts say they're paying up to $350,000 per day to store the oil on these tankers.

GREENE: Wow. And what's the timeline again, Jackie?

NORTHAM: In fact, the first tanker has already arrived. It got in on Friday. It has not been unloaded. It's floating off of Houston. Another tanker is expected to arrive today. You know, this is a fairly long convoy of vessels, and the last is not due to get to the Gulf Coast until the end of May.

GREENE: And just the context here. I mean, the U.S. shale oil industry is in crisis. I mean, so this is competition they don't want. What's the reaction?

NORTHAM: Well, U.S. shale oil producers and political leaders from those states are fighting to save jobs. You know, the demand for oil, David, has nosedived because of the coronavirus. You know, people aren't using oil to drive or fly or run factories during this pandemic. And as a result, prices have plummeted, which is really hurting the U.S. shale industry. And there's a feeling that Saudi Arabia has exploited this situation, and a number of members of Congress are pressuring President Trump to do something about this, either to block the oil from arriving or placing stiff tariffs on the shipments. And, you know, others such as North Dakota Republican Senator Kevin Cramer are going further, saying the U.S. should withdraw its troops and weapons defense systems from Saudi Arabia.

GREENE: Could this change the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a big way?

NORTHAM: Well, it could. I mean, you know, President Trump says he'll look into, you know, what he's going to do about this situation. But critics say the president has been soft on Saudi Arabia, turning a blind eye to the devastating air offensive there in Yemen, human rights abuses and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. You know, Trump forged a strong relationship with the royal family in Saudi Arabia. And it was - the kingdom was the first place he visited once he took office. But the president's defenders say, look, Saudi Arabia is a valuable ally, and it wouldn't make sense to just write the kingdom off. It's better to try to work with the Saudis. And this would be a test of, you know, whether that will work.

GREENE: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam for us this morning. Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.