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News Brief: Fla. Schools Debate Masks, Jobless Data, Belarusian Athlete's Story


Of all debates over responding to the pandemic's latest surge, the most dramatic may be in Florida.


Yeah, that one state accounts for more than 20% of all the new cases in the U.S. So a crisis confronts Governor Ron DeSantis, who's insisted since the start on his own approach to the pandemic. Health officials say students returning to school should wear masks. Governor DeSantis has ordered that school districts cannot require students to wear them. Some districts plan to do it anyway.

INSKEEP: Wow. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did the governor frame this order that they can not mandate masks?

ALLEN: Well, for him, it's all about parents' rights. He says this is protected by a parent's bill of rights that he signed earlier this year. But since the pandemic began, Governor Ron DeSantis has opposed many public health restrictions from the federal government and local officials. Following a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all students and staff wear face masks when classes resume, DeSantis announced he was signing an executive order giving parents the right to choose. Here he is.


RON DESANTIS: I want to empower parents to be able to make the best decisions they can for the well-being of their children.


ALLEN: That announcement came as a shock to school districts, some of whom had already decided to require face masks.

INSKEEP: Well, what kind of pushback are you hearing from those districts that had been planning to require masks?

ALLEN: Well, you know, most school districts are not requiring students to wear face masks in Florida, so they're unaffected. But in some areas where we're seeing spikes in cases, school districts want to require those masks. One of those is Broward County. The school board had previously voted to make face masks mandatory for all students. On Monday after DeSantis threatened to withhold state funds from districts that didn't comply, the board reversed that decision. But then the next day, Broward school board had another announcement. The mask mandate stays for now. Another school board in Alachua County has also decided to defy the order.

INSKEEP: Wow. You can imagine a nightmare here with parents defying the school board that defies the governor who defies someone else. Could he enforce this order?

ALLEN: Well, there's uncertainty about that. It can't really be enforced until regulations are written by the Departments of Health and Education. And it's not clear when those will be ready. Meanwhile, school districts have to make decisions. In Duval County, the Jacksonville area, classes resume next week. The school board there voted to require face masks but will let parents opt out at individual schools. The board is hoping that that might comply with the governor's order.

INSKEEP: Thank you for the reminder of how quickly this is upon us, the school year beginning in some places and beginning in Duval County next week. How do parents feel?

ALLEN: Well, at a school board meeting in Jacksonville this week, dozens of parents and health care workers who support masks spoke up. One was Claire Sowers who said the delta variant may pose more risk for her three children than they faced last year. And she asked the school board to defy DeSantis and make face masks mandatory for all.


CLAIRE SOWERS: Our kids have anxiety about going back to school in an uncertain environment. So I thank you for considering. I don't wish to be in your shoes. Thank you. I know you will do what's best. Call him on his bluff.

ALLEN: But there are many in Florida who support DeSantis for his opposition to mandatory face masks and other COVID restrictions. At the school board meeting, parent Melissa Bernhardt called DeSantis a stand-up guy who's listening to people like her.


MELISSA BERNHARDT: Let the people that want to wear a mask wear them. I'm not against somebody wearing a mask. I'm against somebody making the choice for my child.

ALLEN: Florida's face mask debate isn't over, as you can imagine, Steve. The State Board of Education is meeting today to discuss whether children who are required to wear face masks may be able to claim that it poses a danger to their health or education. That could allow them to qualify for state-sponsored scholarships to attend private schools.

INSKEEP: Wow. Greg, thanks for the update.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Allen.


INSKEEP: As we know from the numbers, the economy is growing sharply, but it's hardly back to normal.

MARTÍNEZ: Today, we get the latest look at a recovering job market. Now, one thing is clear from the last few jobs reports - there's more open jobs in some sectors right now than people willing to take them. Despite unemployment still being high, a lot of businesses are scrambling to find the people they need.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley has been covering this story. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you hear from employers?

HORSLEY: Factories, delivery companies, construction firms, they've all been clamoring for additional workers to keep up with the increased demand they're seeing. Bars and restaurants have been leading the way, adding hundreds of thousands of cooks and servers in recent months. But that industry as a whole is still short of workers. I spoke this week with Liz Valenti who runs a couple of restaurants in Dayton, Ohio. She tells me sales are better than ever.

LIZ VALENTI: Since the vaccination has kicked in, they've been much more eager to spend dollars. And we've benefited from that.

HORSLEY: At the same time, Valenti is keeping her restaurants closed on Sundays and Mondays. She just doesn't have the staff to stay open seven days a week.

VALENTI: Not everybody wanted to come back to this industry, so people that have been in this industry for five, 10, 15 years made the decision not to come back to hospitality. They've moved on to other areas of career path.

HORSLEY: Restaurant jobs are still relatively low paid, although wages have been coming up there as employers compete for workers. Valenti has boosted pay for line cooks in her restaurants to $15 an hour. She's also offering fringe benefits that we don't normally see in the restaurant industry, such as paid vacation and health insurance.

INSKEEP: So many details that I appreciate hearing in what you've just said, Scott. The owner acknowledges that people are looking for work elsewhere. She doesn't think they're lazily sitting at home on unemployment or something like that. She's raised wages to 15 bucks an hour. She's offering these benefits that are rare in her industry. And I guess she's still making a profit or she'd shut down. Does this mean it's all a good time to look for a job?

HORSLEY: You know, ordinarily, you wouldn't think workers have a lot of bargaining power at a time when millions of people are still unemployed. But Julia Pollak, who is a labor economist with the job search website ZipRecruiter, says that is what we're seeing right now.

JULIA POLLAK: For example, we saw a huge increase in the number of job postings offering signing bonuses and, you know, advertising that starting salaries for $15 and that should help some employers seal the deal.

HORSLEY: Sure enough, a couple of the big publicly traded restaurant companies, Chipotle and The Cheesecake Factory, say they have been pretty successful at staffing up now that they've raised their wages.

INSKEEP: There's that $15 number again. But what does it look like for employers now as we have this delta surge?

HORSLEY: Yeah, that's a real question mark. The new coronavirus spike means some companies are postponing plans to return to in-person workspaces and ZipRecruiter's Pollak says that's a potential setback for nearby businesses that rely on that foot traffic.

POLLAK: As people were returning to offices, they were, of course, returning to the restaurants and nail salons and dry cleaners around their offices. And that was sort of reviving employment in downtowns. That may now be on pause for the next couple of months.

HORSLEY: The rise of the delta variant could also prompt some workers to wait longer before rejoining the workforce. Steve, as we've said all along, the path of the recovery depends a lot on what happens with the virus.

INSKEEP: Scott, really appreciate hearing those voices. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley.


INSKEEP: We have a story from the Olympics that is playing out across two continents involving a sprinter, her coaches and the strong man leader of Belarus.

MARTÍNEZ: Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is now in Poland. She fled there after her coaches tried to force her to fly back to Belarus from Tokyo. She was openly critical of them. At the same time, the leader of Belarus has been cracking down on anyone who criticizes his government.

INSKEEP: Reporter Charles Maynes is following this astonishing story. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: What she's saying now that she's safe?

MAYNES: Well, she says she made this decision following a call she got from her grandmother who told her not to come home. Her grandmother had seen Belarusian state television reports that were critical of Tsimanouskaya. Now, Tsimanouskaya says she wasn't trying to be political here. It was she was just angry at her coaches who, at the last minute, had entered her into a 400-meter relay race that she hadn't trained for. She specializes in the 200-meter sprint. And, of course, she'd missed her chance to compete. Now, Tsimanouskaya has since adopted the slogan I only wanted to run, by which I mean her to take it in an Olympic race, not from her government.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I get it. OK. But how did criticizing your coach for a decision about which race to be in become something political that would endanger you at home?

MAYNES: Well, this is really a case where politics found her because so much in Belarus these days comes back to Lukashenko and his family. Her criticism of coaches was seen as criticism of the Olympic committee that's headed by Lukashenko's son, and Alexander Lukashenko plays close attention to sports. He sees medals as an extension of state and therefore his prestige. You know, even in his good luck send-off to athletes before the games, Lukashenko told them to come home with medals or not to come home at all, you know. And on that note, the two coaches who tried to force Tsimanouskaya home from Tokyo, well, today, the IOC told them they had to leave. They're now headed for Minsk.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Alexander Lukashenko. He's the strongman leader of the country. Can you just describe his place in Belarus for those who maybe don't follow it every day?

MAYNES: Sure. First, some background - Lukashenko came to power in 1994. He's never left, earning him the nickname Europe's last dictator along the way. Last August, the country held presidential elections that were widely seen as rigged to give him a landslide win. Mass protests broke out across the country and were met with a massive show of force by the state security forces. You know, over the last year, we've seen over 30,000 arrests with people emerging from prisons with signs of beatings and torture. You know, all this has impacted the sporting world too. Many high-profile athletes criticized the state crackdown and either went to jail or were stripped from national teams. So sports figures are among Belarusians who face this choice, you know, risk terror and arrest at home or flee abroad. And Tsimanouskaya is now in the ranks of the latter.

INSKEEP: As I think of the fact that we've said that she's safe, I wonder if she really is. I think about the fact that Russians who get in trouble with their government are sometimes targeted even when they're abroad. Could someone from Belarus face danger abroad?

MAYNES: Very much so. We learned this week of the mysterious death of Vitaly Shishov, an exiled activist from Belarus who's working out of Kyiv, Ukraine. Shishov ran an NGO that provided aid to Belarusians fleeing the repressions. Now, he went jogging on Monday and never returned. His body was later found hanging in a park near where he lived the next day. And police have since opened an investigation to whether this was suicide or faked to look like a suicide. We simply don't know. But I spoke with other exiled Belarusians who have little doubt that they're being followed and hunted by Lukashenko's security services. And, you know, keep in mind there was this incident from May when Lukashenko forced down a Ryanair passenger jet as it strayed over Belarusian airspace with the aim of really arresting a single opposition journalist who was onboard. The message here seems then and now, you know, we will find you wherever you are, even in the skies.

INSKEEP: Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.