From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
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Michigan has been one of the most aggressive states when it comes to taking steps to combat the coronavirus.
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Bans on all gatherings outside a single household, travel to in-state vacation homes, and the use of motorboats —
Michigan’s restrictions on its citizens movements have been at the center of a national debate about public health versus economic survival.
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Protests in Michigan are growing because the governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, has told us citizens they can’t leave the city and stay in their summer homes.
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Don’t buy paint, don’t buy roses, don’t buy — I mean, she’s got all these crazy things.
Today: A conversation with the governor who ordered those restrictions and a demonstrator who is protesting them.
It’s Wednesday, April 29.
So I just want to start by asking you to introduce yourself. Your name and where you’re talking to us from.
My name is Phillip Campbell and I’m coming to you from Jackson County, Michigan, which is about an hour west of Detroit and about an hour away from the capital of Lansing.
And how long have you lived there?
I’ve been here in this particular location for five years, but I’m a born and raised Michigander my whole life.
And did you say how old you are?
Yeah, 39. I’m turning 40 in June. I had a massive party planned. I was inviting everyone I know and now I just don’t know what’s happening with that, so.
When you say massive, how massive?
I invited 1,000 people so, we were going to be —
I have five acres and I was going to rent Port-a-Johns. And we were going to camp. And it was going to be a multi-day bash, you know?
It turns out you’re very popular, too.
[LAUGHS] Well, I’ve made a lot of friends over the years.
So tell me about what you do for a living.
I’m the vice president of a pest and wildlife control company. We are the ones you call if you wake up at 1:00 a.m. and there’s a bat flying around your kid’s bedroom, and you need somebody to go get it. We will climb on your roof and pull down the hornet’s nest. We will take care of the mice in your basement. We’ll do this sort of work.
We have about 30 employees. I’ve been with the company for about 10 years now. I think I’m one of the most senior employees there. We started when we were in the basement of the owner’s house. And now we have a very large industrial building with a depot and a shop. So it’s been cool to see that grow over the years.
So at this point, how would you describe the company and its success?
I mean, I think we’re on the threshold of breaking through to the next level of growth. We’re grossing about $3 million a year.
Just this year we’re able to for the first time provide health benefits for our employees. So we’ve been working towards that for a long time, trying to get to where we have the sort of revenue and the growth that we could take on those costs, which are not insignificant, you know? We like to think that we’re one of the companies or industries that can still offer regular old Joes without a college education a very decent middle class livelihood with insurance benefits, things like that.
The majority of technicians are what I would just call blue-collar people, you know? They like to hunt, they fish. They go out on the lake on the weekends and drink beer on their pontoons and listen to music. And just regular old folks, you know?
Mm-hm. And what kind of a living do the people generally make?
I mean, many of the people in our company, they provide for their families. You know, they’re the breadwinner. You know, a new technician like starting might make 35.
And then a technician who’s been with us for a while and knows what he’s doing, he can make in the high 50s or 60s. So with the 30 employees we have, we feed about 100 mouths, with their children and families. So we feel responsible for about 100 people’s well-being.
And what did the first Michigan lockdown, the one ordered by Governor Whitmer — what did it mean for your pest control business?
Her order did not exempt us. The text of the order itself, it did not make an exemption for wildlife control, pest control. And we were preparing to shut down. And then I noticed that it said for its definition of essential services, for further clarification, see this document by the Department of Homeland Security. And we found that we were allowed to stay open.
But very quickly after that we had to furlough a couple people after that, because even though we were allowed to stay open, our customer base, many of them aren’t working. So if your customers aren’t working, they’re not spending money. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re open if all the people you serve aren’t working, you know what I mean?
Right. I don’t want to pry too much, but if you were bringing in — I think you said almost $3 million a year in revenue — before this, what did it start to look like once the lockdown was in place and the calls from customers began to taper off?
At first, it was a 50 percent drop.
Again, this is for a company that was allowed to stay open.
And then around this time, the second shutdown order came in, which was the one that everybody started protesting about.
Tell me what you mean.
Yeah, the second shutdown order just ramped down on the first. This was the one that went in and shut particular sections of stores that were still open. So like it said, you can’t buy paint products, you can’t buy gardening products. Because what was happening is people thinking, OK, I got to stay home, I might as well work on my house, you know? So a lot of those people were going to Home Depot, were going to whatever to get their supplies. And then the governor said, no, you can’t get that stuff.
So this was the order that said you can’t go out on a lake by yourself in your boat in your private lake, if the boat has a motor. But if it doesn’t have a motor, you can go. Things that seemed a lot more arbitrary. The one that said you can’t have someone come mow your lawn, even though they pull up in a truck, they drive the lawnmower off, they don’t touch you, they don’t go into your house. It’s just one guy mowing your lawn. You know, things that people started thinking, like, the economy’s already in freefall, is it really necessary to go this far with it?
From my own experience, if the economy takes a dump and we can’t get back to where we were, we have to cut their health insurance or we’re going to have to lay people off. We’re going to take other measures to stay afloat. I don’t know what we’re going to have to do. I don’t want to hypothesize. I don’t want my employees to listen to this and be like, what did you say is going to happen? I don’t know, we’re going to have do something. We can’t just suddenly take a 30 percent to 50 percent decline. That’s huge. What if you got a 50 percent pay cut? It would affect your life.
And so I’m thinking about the ripple effect. We take a 30 percent to 50 percent drop. Our employees take a dip. Maybe they can’t afford to pay their debts. Maybe they can’t afford to pay their own mortgages or whatever. I don’t know. I haven’t assessed the financial situation of each of my employees.
But I guess what I am frustrated about — and I don’t want to minimize the risk of Covid-19 or the people who’ve had it — but as someone who’s worked for 10 years in this business trying to build it up, get it to where it is, I’m frustrated with the attitude of some people that we can just shut it off for a while, and then just turn it back on when everything’s safe, and just pick up where we left off. Like, no, that’s not how business works. That’s certainly not how small business works. If you take a big enough hit, it’s hard to recover from it, you know?
So I’m curious when you first hear about the possibility of a public demonstration, a protest, in Michigan of these lockdown rules?
I saw an event on social media, I think, or I saw people talking about it — like, hey, let’s go down to Lansing and protest. So the owner and I — work’s been slow, so we said, hey, we got time. Let’s drive down to Lansing on Thursday. The way I understood it, we were going to drive by the capitol and honk our horn, basically.
And what was that honked horn going to mean?
The honked horn was going to mean like, we are workers, and we want the freedom for people to be able to work. Please consider opening things back up a little more. The capitol in Lansing, it’s on a loop, so you drive around in like a circle around the capitol. So I thought that all the traffic would come in, we’d kind of loop around and we’d honk, and then we’d go back home, you know? But they were anticipating a certain amount of people — I think 10 times more than they anticipated showed up. So it took us two hours to get to Lansing. We got in Lansing, and then we were just — Michael, it was a traffic jam. That’s what it was. It was just a big traf — it was like an organized traffic jam.
But what did it feel like to be in that traffic jam? Because it’s a particular kind of traffic jam with like-minded people there to protest something.
It was really neat. It was nice to not feel so alone, because I was really sick of people on social media telling me I’m selfish because I don’t want the company I helped build for 10 years to just collapse.
Who’s calling you selfish, do you feel like?
Oh, just people on social media, my friends. People in my broader circle. You know, not people I’m necessarily close to, but I’d say I lost some friends over this, honestly. When the governor shut the economy down, I said this is going to be very hard on businesses and this is going to be very hard on us. And a lot of people’s response seemed to be like, what, do you want people to die or something, you know? And it kind of degenerated into, like, either you want people to die or you hate my business and stuff like that. And I was really glad, because I was starting to feel kind of isolated, to see a solidarity of so many other Michiganders who were similarly frustrated at the situation. Afterwards, when I got home, I saw there was a lot of people with a lot of Trump stuff, and I was kind of thinking, like, no, this isn’t political. Don’t make it into a political thing because this isn’t about the governor happens to be a Democrat or a woman or something. Because I would have gone down there if it was a Republican, you know? It wasn’t about her party affiliation. So I was frustrated —
What did you make of the flavor of the protest? It seems like you didn’t see this yourself in your car, but as you’ve hinted, there were strong strains of libertarianism and conservatism, and pro-Trump posters, as well as people with guns, as well as some, you know, some more vulgar and extreme sentiments. Some people compared Governor Whitmer to Hitler.
Oh, like Governor Whitler? [LAUGHS] Oh, I don’t know, I think that’s just juvenile. I mean, I think it’s pretty juvenile in public discourse when the only thing you go to is compare your opponent to Hitler. I wish it wouldn’t have been so much anti-Whitmer, because this isn’t about like Governor Whitmer, the person, you know? I wish that it would have been more on point and focused about “let me work,” you know?
I wonder where you fall in the political spectrum. Did you vote for Trump? Did you vote for Whitmer? And how did your political views apply to this event?
My political views didn’t apply to this event really at all. You know, like, I would’ve been there if this was a Republican. I did vote for Trump. I don’t particularly think he’s doing that great of a job. So I’m not a gung-ho Trump supporter. I didn’t vote for Whitmer, but I didn’t like the guy running against her, either. So.
You’re saying you’re not seeing this crisis or the lockdowns through a political lens?
No, no, not at all. Not at all. The little match between President Trump and Governor Whitmer is making it more political. When Trump tweets, “Liberate Michigan,” when he refers to her as that woman from Michigan, obviously, that sets Governor Whitmer up as a foil against President Trump, which politicizes it. When rumors start coming out that Biden wants to consider her as V.P. material, that politicizes it. I really liked when I was there that it simply seemed like a spontaneous expression of working class frustration.
Phil, I want to tick through what your governor said when she began this process of locking down the state and basically enforcing social distancing. And here’s what she said: “The only tool we have to fight the virus at this moment and to support our health care system is to give them the opportunity by buying some time.”
And she went on to say, “Without aggressive measures, more people will get sick, more people will die, and our economy will suffer longer.” And in her telling, the disease spreads if people are out there. If people aren’t out there, the disease doesn’t spread. So she is making the case in the beginning that these sacrifices are required to prevent a system overload. What do you think of that?
Well, we were willing to go along with that, because we were all expecting this huge crunch on all our hospitals. We were worried about not enough beds, not enough ventilators. But the fact is the curve is flattened now. We now have hospitals, they’re not overwhelmed anymore. So what we’re saying is that was all well and good, but now, we can start to open up again because we flattened the curve. Even if infections go back up at this point, as I grant they could if we start being more economically active, it seems highly unlikely, given all the empty hospitals, that were going to get to another crush where we don’t have enough beds or something like that.
So I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying when you talk about where things are in Michigan. The Times has maps about where the virus is in each state. And just pulling this up, Michigan has about 38,000 infections, and there’s been about 3,300 deaths.
Yeah, we’re the third highest state, I think.
So when you talk about your frustrations with the different phases of this lockdown, how do you square it with those numbers?
Well, I square it because my understanding is that the lockdown wasn’t supposed to be like, we’re going to lockdown until this goes away. What we were told was that this lockdown was to distribute those amount of cases over a longer period of time, so that the health system doesn’t get overwhelmed. So I look at the total number of deaths and infections and say, OK, this thing is here to stay whether we like it or not. The hospitals do have the ability to take people in. So it seems like to me that the goal has been met. The goal is not to —
It sounds like you’re saying that if we assume that the measures taken so far have flattened the curve to some degree in Michigan, that you’re willing to accept the risks of restarting the economy, even if that means that the curve might go up a little bit. That you think that so far the measures taken have done enough to merit that kind of experimentation with, essentially, taking the risk of reopening.
I think so. And again, I’m not saying just a full, like — the economy isn’t a switch, you just turn it on, everybody comes back out, you know? But I think people who want to work and can work in a way that is maintaining safe protocols, I think they should be able to. Because the thing is, what I would like people to understand is that it’s not like either we stay home and stay safe, or we all get the coronavirus and die. It’s like staying home and nobody working has its own inherent risks and dangers and devastation that’s going to come. When I talk about the economy, I’m not saying I’m worried about the stock market or the financial sector. I’m talking about the ability of the average person to provide sustenance for himself and one’s family. So we could have negative outcomes because of the shutdown, not because of Covid — negative outcomes that dwarf Covid.
Mm-hm. So we’re now talking on Monday, April 27. And that protest was about two weeks ago.
And I’m curious if you think that protest, which was one of the very first protests, had any kind of impact?
Yeah, I think it did. I mean, this is just me kind of blue skying this, but I think it let her see that she only had a limited amount of political capital that she could keep carrying this out indefinitely. She started to say, we’ll let lawn service in again, we’ll let various things start.
She rolled back some of the more, in your mind, problematic restrictions.
Yeah. She rolled back some of the more problematic restrictions and she started talking about an end game, you know? So in that respect, I think it was helpful. I think it got the message across.
We plan to talk to Governor Whitmer and I wonder what you most want to communicate to her about what you think she may not understand, what she might not be getting in this moment?
Well, first, I would say to her, Americans are responsible people. We’re creative people. Tell us what social distancing guidelines you think we should be maintaining when we’re out there, and let us find a way to do it. If you think we need to be six or seven feet apart, if you think we shouldn’t have more than six people in a room, give us a safe paradigm of personal behavior and let us work within it. Don’t lock us down and say that we can’t provide for ourselves. That’s the most basic human right — is to provide for your own well-being. Just let us find some way to work.
Well, Phil, thank you very much. We really appreciate your time.
Yeah, thank you. I was very happy to be with you today.
We’ll be right back.
Governor Whitmer, it’s Michael Barbaro. How are you?
I’m doing all right. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. Where are you right now? That looks like it might be home.
Yes. Yes, I’m at the governor’s residence in one of the rooms.
Is that a sign of you that says, “The Gov“?
It’s a beer that was named after me. So yes, that’s the poster.
And the beer is called The Gov?
Is that any good?
It is pretty good. It’s an Indian pale ale.
[LAUGHS] So governor, over the past few weeks, it feels like a lot of people have learned your name. But I sense a lot of Americans, a lot of our listeners don’t know all that much about you, and how it is you became the governor of Michigan. So in brief, what is that story?
You know, I’m a lifelong Michigander. I’ve lived here my whole life. I was brought up in a household with a father who was kind of a Republican, a mother who was kind of a Democrat. I decided to run for governor after spending some time practicing law and teaching, and I did a stint as a prosecutor in my hometown. But I think that part of my nature is when I see a problem, and I don’t see the right people there to fix it, I just kind of want to jump in and do it. The tagline of the campaign was “fix the damn roads.” And it wasn’t because it was poll-tested. It’s how everyone in the state talks about their frustration with infrastructure that hasn’t been attended to properly for a long period of time. And it is the most visceral daily reminder of government that’s not getting the fundamentals right.
That was kind of the call to action. And I won by almost 10 points after Donald Trump had won my state by less than 11,000 votes just two years before, I think, because we really were trying to rally around getting the fundamentals right.
Right. So it’s fair to say that you did not run in that race for governor as somebody who would become a polarizing and partisan figure in a national debate over the future of the American economy.
Correct. [LAUGHS] To the contrary, I went out of my way to not go down that path. And so to be right here in this moment, in the midst of a global pandemic, to be trying to pull people together — where things have gotten so polarized in ways that I think many people would say they couldn’t have ever predicted, if they were being honest — is kind of surreal.
So let’s talk about how that happened, how you have gotten to this point where there’s so much polarization over your decision-making. As the pandemic unfolds, soon enough, you begin imposing restrictions on the movement of Michigan residents and what feels like a pretty standard version of a lockdown.
But then at a certain point, you introduce a second wave of restrictions that are a little bit different, right? Banning travel to second homes, banning motor-boating, limiting what kind of non-essential goods stores can sell. And governor, what was your thinking there with that second wave of restrictions?
So what we knew at the time was that Covid-19 was ravaging southeast Michigan.
We also know that we have an incredibly high death count compared to our population — 10th largest population, but the third highest number of positive cases and number of deaths. We also know that Covid-19 doesn’t recognize boundaries of a county. That this is a disease that is highly communicable. There are studies that will tell you Covid-19 can stay active and communicable for 72 hours on a stainless steel surface. And so as the weather starts to warm up here in Michigan, we know people want to head north and go to the lake.
One of the lakes — we got lots of beautiful freshwater lakes. And the more people that are on the road, the more likely Covid-19 will be spread at a gas station. I often would invoke the visual of that gas pump. So you think about all the nurses and doctors and people that have to touch that gas pump because they’re going out to get groceries, or they’re going out to pick up medication. The more people that are on the road, the more likely Covid-19 spreads to other parts of the state, too. And that’s why these restrictions made sense.
So your thinking was, let’s shut down anything that might contribute to the spread, and let’s make sure that people in the most populous parts of Michigan don’t end up basically exporting it to less populous parts of the state, where outdoor activities are concentrated. And let’s do this even if it might seem a little bit extreme.
Let’s shut down what’s not life-sustaining activity. That was the thought process of why we went more aggressive than some other states.
So you think those second wave measures were the right call?
Governor, the protests that broke out in your state, I’m sure you were aware of them because you’re in Lansing. Protesters very much by design came to you. Did you sympathize at all with the protesters, who said that they found these restrictions to be too onerous, to be unfair, to be — in their minds — undemocratic?
I’ll say this. I respect people’s right to disagree with me. I do. And I will defend anyone’s right to say what they want to say. Their ability and right to do that is absolutely something that I have a great deal of respect for.
The fact of the matter is, congregation is the biggest threat to containing Covid-19. Because when people come from all different parts of the state, congregate, don’t observe C.D.C. best practices, and then go back to all parts of the state, that’s precisely what we’re hoping to avoid in terms of continuous transmission and growth in other parts of Michigan.
But when you look at these protests, there were a variety of different political groups that came together. It had a rally feel to it. It was right outside the office. I saw, I watched a bit of it. People were open carrying automatic rifles. There were demonstrations, anti-choice demonstrations. They’re displaying Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism, and I think very partisan rhetoric. Was more about a political statement rather than a statement of the sacrifices that I’ve asked people to make.
Well, yesterday, Governor, I spoke with a man who was at that protest. He stayed in his car. His name was Phil Campbell. He manages a kind of moderate-sized business that he says is suffering right now under these restrictions. And he said that he didn’t arrive as a partisan. That he would have gone to Lansing and protested whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. And in his mind, the shutdown is creating its own health and safety costs, right? He says his employees may soon lose their health insurance because business is suffering so much they can’t afford to provide it much longer. I mean, what do you say to someone like that — who says this is not about politics, this is not about you being a Democrat, this is not about the Tea Party? This is about a view that this is just not right?
The reality is, unrestrained activity would have made what was a hard time a catastrophe that would have taken a lot longer to start to re-engage from.
What our modeling told us, we would have 220,000 people who would need to be hospitalized this week. We have 3,000 people who are hospitalized. It’s worked. And the vast majority of people are doing their part and doing the right thing. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve stepped up to do it. And we’ve saved lives in the process.
This gentleman I spoke with, Phil, the protester, his ultimate message — and it was directed very much at you as governor — is, trust us. Let us start to go back to work not like a band-aid being ripped off, but gradually. And trust us to be able to work and follow social distancing guidelines. And I think his question to you would be, do you trust Michiganders to do that?
I am so inspired by what the people of this state have done in this crisis. They’ve stepped up. They’ve made sacrifices. I have incredible faith and confidence in the people of the state. But we have a duty to make sure that we get this right.
And it’s got to be guided by the best medical experts as well as business leaders. And that’s what we’re working to do. I have a council of business leaders and medical leaders who are helping us determine how do we start to re-engage our economy in a way that avoids a second wave. Because whether Phil and I agree on how quickly that should be done or not, I think we can both agree — I hope so — that none of us ever wants to do this again. You know, in states that are moving, some would say too fast, one of the issues that small business is confronting is that the public is not confident that it’s safe to re-engage. And so they’ve lifted the protections for small business while you’re in a crisis. And yet, the public’s not coming out to patronize. And that could be even worse for small business. So what we want to do is get it right. And that means working with the business community and public health. And turning up the dial together so we don’t have to turn it back.
Well, let’s talk about how it is that you get it right when it comes to reopening and how you’re thinking about that. I mean, is there a data set you’re looking at? Is there a set of measurements you’re monitoring? And I’m curious — and I’m sure lots of people Michigan are, too — what’s the thing or things that trigger the reopening?
So we’ve started to reengage. We are looking, of course, at rolling averages on hospitalizations. We are looking at our ability to ramp up testing. We need to build out when it comes to tracing, so that if someone does test positive for Covid-19, that we’re able to trace all their contacts and keep it from spreading. I would also add that we in Michigan are assessing different sectors of our economy for risk, asking questions like, is the work done in a region of our state that’s been devastated by Covid-19, or a region that has been untouched by Covid-19?
Does the type of work require that multiple people use the same instruments or machinery? Is the work done indoors or outdoors? That makes a difference.
Mm-hm. Right, one of the examples that I think Phil gave was around this idea of, is there a work that can be done — that just feels fundamentally safer by nature — that those might come back soon?
So you use the word “feels.” Feels safer.
And I think that’s interesting, because what I want to make sure we do is go with data, and make sure that as we are reengaging, we’re continually measuring. I know Phil doesn’t want to be back in a stay home order in August and neither do I.
And so I want to get this right for him, for his employees — lawnscaping, lawn care, that is already permitted. That was in our first wave that I announced on Friday. In this next one, we could have construction — that is often in big spaces outdoors with P.P.E. and the protocols necessary. That could be a lower risk one that we can mitigate the risk further through protocols around face masks, or separators between workers who can’t be six feet apart but can have plexiglass separators, for instance. And so all of these are pieces to starting to turn the dial up and what it looks like in waves.
You know, we started by talking to you about the fact that when you first ran for governor, it was as somebody literally talking about fixing the roads and fixing infrastructure in Michigan. And through these actions that you’ve taken in response to the pandemic, you have become a national figure, a national Democratic figure, right? You’re, whether you wanted to or not, sparring with the president. And whether it’s fairly or unfairly, you’re now seen through a partisan lens, as a partisan figure. Are you comfortable now in that role?
No! [LAUGHS] I’m not. I mean, you know, I was thrown into the national spotlight being criticized or attacked by the President of the United States. I didn’t ask for that. I did not like it. I didn’t sleep —
— frankly, because I was worried that this would preclude my ability to get the help that I need for Michigan.
Hm. You fear that you might actually suffer some kind of retribution that might make it harder to get through this pandemic?
Yeah. And I think that that was a legitimate fear with some of the statements that have been made.
By the president?
Yeah. That if you’re not nice, you might not get the help you need. And so I’ve bent over backwards to try to smooth that over, not throwing a punch back. I would hate for anyone in Michigan to not have the help they need because I’m not popular with the president for some reason.
Do you worry that with the divided state of this country, some of your constituents will come away from this pandemic seeing your actions as partisan no matter what happens and no matter what your intentions?
I think that’s the unfortunate reality that we live with. I do think, though, that when we have gotten through this when we look back on it, that we’re going to be comfortable in the fact that the decisions that were made save lives.
The hard thing about public health is when you do it well, you never know how many lives would have been lost otherwise.
But we can see it when you look at the curves where we were headed, and where we are today, that there’s no question lives were saved. There’s no question that these actions made a difference. And that’s what centered everything that we’ve done.
Not the partisan stuff, not the fear of that, but the determination to do everything in our power to save lives and to keep our health care system working so that it’s there when we all need it.
Well, Governor Whitmer, I want to thank you very much for your time. And I hope you’re getting a little more sleep now.
[LAUGHS] No, but I’ll sleep sometime. Thank you.
Thank you. We appreciate it.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States reached 1 million, meaning that roughly one in every 330 Americans has tested positive for the virus. But The Times reports that the actual number of infections is even higher since thousands of Americans have never been tested because of a shortage of testing supplies. And —
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We had intended to come back next week. It has been previously scheduled. But once the Capitol physician told us that it was not a proper for us to do that in the interest of not only members and staff, but the custodians, the people who maintain the Capitol, the press who cover us, the staff of the actual legislative chamber, there was no choice for us but to say we will put this off.
The House of Representatives has canceled plans to call lawmakers back into session after members complained that returning to Washington would pose an unnecessary health risk and set a bad example for the country. The Senate, however, is expected to reconvene in Washington on Monday.
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In New York, jets from the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels flew over the city on Tuesday in a tribute to medical workers and first responders involved in fighting the pandemic.
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The Jets soared over the East River as well as the Hudson and were cheered on by New Yorkers, who ventured outside to observe them flying over.