Pentagon used CARES Act funds meant for masks and swabs to make jet engine parts and body armor

Sep4ember 23, 2020

The Defense Department has allowed the Pentagon to play a shell game with $1 billion in federal funds intended to pay for pandemic-related PPE and equipment such as respirators, medical gloves and gowns, swabs and test kits, and ventilators.

 Congress allotted the financing to the Pentagon, even as the coronavirus pandemic spiked last March, in order to build up the nation’s stockpile of medical equipment. Instead, the Washington Post reports, the money has been funneled mostly to defense contractors for the manufacture of such items as jet engine parts, body armor, and dress uniforms.

The change illustrates how one taxpayer-backed effort to battle the novel coronavirus, which has killed about 200,000 Americans to date, was instead diverted toward patching up long-standing perceived gaps in military supplies.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Congress passed earlier this year, gave the Pentagon money to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” But a few weeks later, the Defense Department began reshaping how it would award the money in a way that represented a major departure from Congress’s intent.

Among the awards: $183 million to firms including Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal to maintain the shipbuilding industry; tens of millions of dollars for satellite, drone and space surveillance technology; $80 million to a Kansas aircraft parts business suffering from the Boeing 737 Max grounding and the global slowdown in air travel; and $2 million for a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric.

The payments were made even though U.S. health officials believe that major funding gaps in pandemic response still remain. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)said in Senate testimony last week that states desperately need $6 billion to distribute vaccines to Americans early next year. Many U.S. hospitals still face a severe shortage of N95 masks. These are the types of problems that the money was originally intended to address.

“This is part and parcel of whether we have budget priorities that actually serve our public safety or whether we have a government that is captured by special interests,” said Mandy Smithberger, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The $1 billion fund is just a fraction of the $3 trillion in emergency spending that Congress approved earlier this year to deal with the pandemic. But it shows how the blizzard of bailout cash was — in some cases — redirected to firms that weren’t originally targeted for assistance. It also shows how difficult it has been for officials to track how money is spent and — in the case of Congress — intervene when changes are made.

What’s more, according to the Post’s report, the Trump Administration has done little to limit the defense firms from accessing multiple bailout funds at once—and is not requiring the companies to refrain from layoffs as a condition of receiving the awards.

Congress, at President Trump’s urging, is debating whether to pass another massive stimulus package, and the Pentagon and defense contractors have called for an additional $11 billion to be directed toward their programs.

Research contact: @washingtonpost

KitKat’s Flavor Club Sweepstakes offers fans a chance to preview and taste new brand innovations

September 22, 2020

When Groucho Marx said “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member,” he might not have been considering KitKat’s Flaver Club Sweepstakes.

Launching on September 21, the club will offer 200 fans the opportunity to be one of the first to taste some of the brand’s newest flavor innovations. The sweepstakes invites fans to enter—here—at no cost, for the chance to be selected to join a limited group KitKat insiders who will receive in-development products and club member swag, delivered straight to their doorsteps. Entries will be open for submission from September 21 at 9 a.m. (EDT), and will close on September Free29 at 11:59 p.m. (EDT).

Sweepstakes entrants who are selected to be club members will receive three kits during the debut year, which will start now and go through Spring 2021. The brand is excited to announce that the first kit will feature the highly anticipated KitKat Duo’s  mocha + chocolate before it arrives on shelves nationwide this November.

“We listened to the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our recent KitKat flavor launches,” said Amy Minderman, a senior brand manager for the parent company, Hershey. . “It is important for us to hear feedback from our fans, so that we can continue to create flavors they love, so we are thrilled to introduce the Kit Ka.

No purchase is necessary to enter or win the sweepstakes. Entrants must be legal residents of the USA, and must be 18 years of age or older.

Research contact: @KITKAT

Trump bans TikTok, WeChat from app stores beginning September 20

September 21, 2020

In a move that will sharply raise tensions with Beijing from app—and infuriate about 100 million American active users—the Trump Administration has announced that it is banning China’s virally popular TikTok, as well as the less sought-after WeChat, from mobile app stores beginning September 20, The Washington Post reports.

On Sunday, the United States also will ban any provision of Internet hosting services that enables WeChat to be used for money transfers or mobile payments. The Administration will give TikTok until November 12 until further bans kick in.

Western companies and bankers still continue to wrangle with TikTok’s owner, the White House, and Chinese authorities to try to arrange a sale of some of TikTok’s business, the Post says. Indeed, TikTok’s partnership with a U.S. corporation— most likely Oracle—could save it in this country, but details about such decisions remain unclear.

“Today’s actions prove once again that President Trump will do everything in his power to guarantee our national security and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party,” U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement. “At the President’s direction, we have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of U.S. laws and regulations.”

Meanwhile, the Independent reports, TikTok denies that it has shared user data with the Chinese government, or that it would do so if asked. The company says it has not censored videos at the request of Chinese authorities and insists it is not a national-security threat.

“The President has provided until November 12 for the national security concerns posed by TikTok to be resolved. If they are, the prohibitions in this order may be lifted,” Commerce said in its statement.

Research contact: @washingtonpost

Now, NYC restaurants can add a 10% ‘COVID-19 Recovery Charge’ to customers’ bills

September 18, 2020

The New York City Council has passed new legislation that could help hard-strapped  restaurants—but at a price to diners, Fox Business reports.

On September 16, the council approved a bill that, effective immediately, allows restaurants to add a COVID-19 Recovery Charge to their customers’ checks, if they choose to do so—provided that the the charge is “clearly disclosed” on the menu and bill.

The new law limits the amount of the surcharge to 10% of a customer’s total bill, according to Fox Business.

According to NBC New York, the bill only allows small restaurants to add the recovery charge to their customers’ bills. That doesn’t include “pushcarts, stands, vehicles, or large chains

Restarants in the Big Apple have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic—starting with the statewide lockdown and restrictions on in-person dining. Even now, restaurants in the city only are allowed to serve food outdoors. (Although, starting on September 30, restaurants will be allowed to offer indoor dining, at a 25% capacity.)

“I know that we’re going to be fine, however, 25% for a lot smaller restaurants is not going to cut the bill, not when you have those looming commercial New York real estate to pay,” Tren’ness Woods-Black, the vice president of communications of Sylvia’s restaurant , told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo on September 14.

Previously, restaurants weren’t allowed to add an extra charge in order to make up for coronavirus losses, “even if such surcharge is clearly disclosed,” the NYC Council website said.

The COVID-19 relief charge will only last “until 90 days after full indoor dining is once again permitted,” the bill says.

Research contact: @FoxBusiness

Singapore pays citizens to exercise with the Apple Watch

September 17, 2020

In its first-ever branding alliance with a sovereign nation, Apple has announced that it is partnering with the government of Singapore to launch an Apple Watch health initiative that offers cash rewards to participants, Fortune Magazine reports.

Starting in late October, Singapore citizens who own an Apple Watch (or want to buy one) can download an app called LumiHealth—which will challenge them each to participate in exercises such as swimming and yoga; as well as to complete health screenings and immunizations. By doing so, users can earn a maximum of $280 over the program’s two-year run.

The app assigns users tasks based on personal information such as age, gender, and weight. It was designed “with user privacy and security at its core,” according to Apple’s press release on the partnership.

“Even as all of us around the world are dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, we must keep investing in our future. And there is no better investment than in our own personal health,” Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Ministersaid in a statement.

Singapore’s government launched a similar initiative in 2019 when it partnered with Fitbit to provide Singapore residents with free fitness trackers, if they bought a premium subscription to the company’s coaching program. That program is ongoing.

The new program is a boon to Apple since it’s an added incentive for Singaporeans to purchase the brand’s watch. The watch is an increasingly vital part of Apple’s business. In January, Apple reported that revenue from “wearables” like the Apple Watch surpassed Mac revenue for the first time.

Singapore has a universal health care system often held up as a public health model for other countries; it also has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world. The Apple and Fitbit collaborations are two of many programs designed by Singapore’s Ministry of Health to promote public health.

The government is also using technology for its management of the coronavirus outbreak. On Monday, Singapore began to distribute small “tokens,” which can be worn around the neck with a lanyard, that feature a QR code and a Bluetooth connection so that residents who don’t have smartphones—about 5% of the population—can participate in TraceTogether, the government’s Bluetooth tracking smartphone app for coronavirus cases that launched in March.

Currently, around 40% of Singapore’s population has downloaded the contact tracing app; the government is targeting a 70% participation rate.

Research contact: @FortuneMagazine

Amazin’: Billionaire Steven Cohen reaches deal to buy New York Mets

September 16, 2020

Billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen has beat out several other investors—among them, the power couple, Alex Rodriguez and Jenniifer Lopez— to reach an agreement to acquire the New York Mets from the controlling Wilpon and Katz families, the team said, in a deal that sources say is worth slightly more than $2.4 billion

The deal, which would set a new benchmark for North American sports franchise valuations, will become official only after a vote of Major League Baseball’s owners later this year.

The most expensive baseball transaction to date had been the $2.15 billion that Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter and a group of co-investors, including basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, paid for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. The transaction was partly financed by a group of insurance companies associated with Guggenheim.

Should the sale for the Mets be approved, word is that Cohen will own 95% of the team, while the Wilpon and Katz families will retain a 5% stake.

“I am excited to have reached an agreement with the Wilpon and Katz families to purchase the New York Mets,” Cohen, a lifelong fan of the team, said in a statement released by the Mets.

Research contact: @WSJ

Stretch goals: Lululemon is finally extending its size range

September 15, 2020

A larger Lululemon size offering is finally here. The Vancouver, Canada-based activewear brand announced on September 8 at a press conference helmed by CEO Calvin McDonald that it will offer sizes up to 20 for its core styles by the end of September.

The company currently only goes up to a size 14 for most pieces—and its body-hugging athletic gear is shown on the Lululemon website on models with thin frames.

Indeed, Lululemon has been called out on multiple occasions in the past for body-shaming, according to a report by Bustle. In 2013, former CEO Chip Wilson resigned after stating that Lululemon pants “don’t work for some women’s bodies.” Then, in 2017, a woman’s story went viral after she was allegedly told that she should be shopping for a larger size when visiting the Lululemon store in Canada.

Despite these incidents, the brand continues to enjoy unprecedented popularity in the activewear market, Bustle notes. Several items — including Meghan Markle’s go-to Align leggings—continue to sell out.

What’s more. those who are quarantining and working from home during a time of pandemic are choosing to wear comfortable, soft clothing. Thus, the brand was one of the few that saw a significant sales increase during the first half of the year.

While the brand will offer larger sizes for its core pieces by the end of the month; McDonald promised that the “majority of women’s products” will be more size-inclusive by the end of 2021. He added that it is “an important step forward” for the company.

Research contact: @bustle

CDC: People who test positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely to have dined out recently

September 14, 2020

study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people who test positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely to have dined out in the 14 days before their diagnosis than those who test negative, Business Insider reports.

The study comes as most states allow people to dine indoors again. New York City recently announced plans to resume indoor dining on September 30.

The researchers collected data July 1-29 across 10 states from 314 adults with coronavirus symptoms. About half of them (154) tested positive for the virus.

Participants were asked about possible community exposure in the two weeks leading up to their test and how well they followed social-distancing measures.

The study did not, however, ask whether participants dined indoors or outdoors, and researchers said more studies were needed to establish whether the findings would be similar in a larger sample of people.

Respondents also were asked if they had worked at an office, gone shopping, gone to the gym, attended a church gathering, or used public transportation frequently in the two weeks before the diagnosis. Meanwhile, going to the beach or doing outdoor activities has been deemed low-risk by experts.

Specifically, the researchers determined:

  • 42% of those who tested positive said they had close contact with at least one person with COVID-19, most of whom (51%) were family members, two weeks before their test.
  • A lower proportion—14%—of the participants who tested negative reported having close contact with a person with known COVID-19 during the same time frame.
  • 71% of the people who tested positive, and 74% of those who tested negative, said they always wore a face covering while in public during the two weeks before their test. (The study did not ask participants what type of covering they wore, however.)

According to the Business Insider report, the CDC guidelines currently say that takeout, drive-thrus, or delivery services pose the lowest risk of contracting the coronavirus from a restaurant; while the highest risk would be offering indoor and outdoor dining where tables are neither reduced nor spaced at least six feet apart.

Experts have previously warned that air circulation in indoor spaces and gatherings—such as restaurants—could affect virus transmission.

As of Friday morning, September 11, the United States remains the worst-hit country in the pandemic. The country has reported more than 6.3 million coronavirus cases and nearly 200,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker.

Research contact: @businessinsider

Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart launches CBD line

September 11, 2020

She has conquered the culinary world with her garden-grown ingredients, home-cooked meals and pastries, and exquisite table settings, so when Martha Stewart says that her new CBD products will “taste as wonderful as they make you feel,” she knows whereof she speaks.

Created in collaboration with top hemp and cannabis company Canopy Growth, Martha Stewart CBD includes hemp-derived wellness supplements that boast flavors “inspired by some of Martha’s most popular recipes,” said the news announcement.

The initial batch of products will include wellness supplements for people, with a gift box and pet line launching later this year, Forbes Magazine reports.

“I’ve found that CBD supplements are a simple way to enhance my own health and wellness, especially when it comes to managing the stresses of daily life,” said Stewart in a public statement. “I set out to create the most delicious CBD products on the market, drawing inspiration from some of my favorite recipes and flavor profiles from my greenhouse and gardens.”

Prices for the products range from $34.99 to $44.99.

David Klein, Canopy Growth’s CEO, expressed considerable enthusiasm on his company’s partnership with the illustrious Stewart. “We are committed to leading the CBD industry by providing trusted brands, which is why we’ve chosen to collaborate with Martha Stewart, someone who people turn to for advice on living well,” he said in a public statement. “Together, we’re bringing consumers science-backed, premium quality products in elegantly designed and gourmet flavored formats, available at a price point that makes Martha Stewart CBD one of the best values on the market.”

Research contact: @Forbes

A shot in the dark? Drug companies issue rare joint pledge on vaccine safety

September 9, 2020

On September 7, nine pharmaceutical companies issued a rare joint pledge—intended to reassure the American public about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines that currently are under development.

The statement from the top drug companies working on COVID-19 vaccines—including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Moderna—comes amid fears that President Donald Trump will continue to place pressure on the industry to speed up the vaccine approval process without proper oversight, and doubts among the public about taking a vaccine, The Hill reports.

The joint pledge states that the companies will not seek Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for their vaccines until a rigorous phase 3 clinical trial shows that it is safe and that it works. 

The companies pledged they would “only submit for approval or emergency use authorization after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.”

The companies said they would “always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals our top priority.”

Highlighting the fears of political interference, Trump on Monday floated the idea of having a vaccine before Election Day on November 3. “We’re going to have a vaccine very soon. Maybe even before a very special date. You know what date I’m talking about,” he said at a news conference.

Trump has put pressure on the FDA before, saying that the “deep state” at the agency was throwing up roadblocks before the agency issued an emergency authorization for a coronavirus treatment known as convalescent plasma.

According to The Hill, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn also has offered reassurances that his agency will base vaccine decisions only on science and not on politics.

But the statement from the pharmaceutical companies is an illustration of how deep the fears are about politicization of the process and the need for companies to try make their own reassurance about science guiding the process.

An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll last month found that a significant portion of the public (35%) did not intend to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Research contact: @thehill