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Apple re-closes some stores, raising economic concerns

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Apple re-closes some stores, raising economic concerns

By TALI ARBEL and MICHAEL LIEDTKE AP Technology Writers

Apple’s Friday decision to close stores in four states with surging coronavirus cases highlights a question that other businesses may soon face: Stay open or prepare for more shutdowns?

Apple, like many other major U.S. retailers, shut down all of its U.S. locations in March. On Friday, it said it would shut 11 stores, seven in Arizona, two in Florida, two in North Carolina and one in South Carolina, that it had reopened just a few weeks ago.

The move heightens concerns that the pandemic might keep the economy in the doldrums longer than expected. Those worries sent stocks on Wall Street lower. It’s not clear whether other retailers will follow en masse, although one analyst expects hard-hit stores to stay open unless forced to close by local authorities.

Many other businesses, including manufacturing, travel, dining, and entertainment, have been steadily reopening where they can while taking health precautions. But some have recently pulled back or paused their plans. The Cruise Lines International Association, for instance, announced Friday that ships will not be sailing from U.S. ports until at least Sept. 15, extending a pause put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The auto industry, meanwhile, has seen its efforts to restart production hampered in part by infected workers.

Because U.S. efforts to contain the pandemic haven’t been particularly successful, the situation “could ultimately lead to a need for more prolonged shut-downs” that would reduce consumer spending and cost jobs, said Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In public remarks Friday, Rosengren said he expected the economic rebound this year would be less than what was initially hoped for at the pandemic’s outset, and that the unemployment rate would remain in double-digits.

States such as Utah and Oregon are pausing the reopening of their economies amid a spike in cases, while others like Texas and Arizona have not changed their plans. Arizona this week did mandate that businesses implement social distancing, and Phoenix made masks mandatory in public.

Like many of the biggest players in the technology industry, Apple has been faring far better than most companies amid pandemic-induced recession. The store closures won’t put a significant dent in Apple’s sales, said Wedbush Securities Daniel Ives, but they are “a worrisome trend.”

The Cupertino, California, company has continued to sell iPhones and other products online, and other retailers can do so as well if they decide to close, said Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners.

“I don’t think this is going to be a giant stumbling block for Apple or anybody else. You can still get almost everything you need online somewhere,” he said.

Johnson noted that the country’s biggest retailers, Walmart and Target, did not shut down, and neither did appliance chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s. If other chains that aren’t deemed essential do shut down stores, he would expect closures to be limited to areas with rising cases.

Still, retail has been hit hard, with declining profits and bankruptcies. Retail earnings shrank 70% in the first quarter, excluding Walmart, said Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics, and second-quarter earnings are expected to drop another 45%. Department stores Neiman Marcus and J.C.Penny and clothing chain J. Crew have all filed for bankruptcy protection. Home-goods chain Pier 1 is shutting down.

“Remaining open may be existential for some retailers and I would expect they will stay open where local regulations allow,” Perkins said in an email. He expected that they would offer curbside pick-up “at a bare minimum” even if doors were shut again in specific areas where they are required to do so.

Disney, which has been planning to reopen Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando, Florida, in July, is not changing its plans. Universal Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and SeaWorld have already reopened in Florida. Cases are also rising in Florida, and some restaurants and bars said they were temporarily closing again.

Movie theater chains are also reopening, with Cinemark beginning the process this week in Dallas and going nationwide in July. Regal and AMC are also set to open again in July — with mask requirements for employees and customers.

The Navajo Nation’s gambling operation had hoped to reopen its casinos in Arizona and New Mexico in mid-June but they’ll stay closed until at least early July because of the outbreak. Other casinos have closed temporarily.

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Arbel reported from New York; Liedtke from San Ramon, California. Associated Press Writer Joseph Pisani in New York and Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.

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Facebook civil rights audit: ‘Serious setbacks’ mar progress

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Facebook civil rights audit 'Serious setbacks' mar progress

A two-year audit of Facebook’s civil rights record found “serious setbacks” that have marred the social network’s progress on matters such as hate speech, misinformation and bias.

Facebook hired the audit’s leader, former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues. Its 100-page report released Wednesday outlines a “seesaw of progress and setbacks” at the company on everything from bias in Facebook’s algorithms to its content moderation, advertising practices and treatment of voter suppression.

The audit recommends that Facebook build a “civil rights infrastructure” into every aspect of the company, as well as a “stronger interpretation” of existing voter suppression policies and more concrete action on algorithmic bias. Those suggestions are not binding, and there is no formal system in place to hold Facebook accountable for any of the audit’s findings.

“While the audit process has been meaningful, and has led to some significant improvements in the platform, we have also watched the company make painful decisions over the last nine months with real world consequences that are serious setbacks for civil rights,” the audit report states.

Those include Facebook’s decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking, even when President Donald Trump posted false information about voting by mail. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has cited a commitment to free speech as a reason for allowing such posts to remain on the platform, even though the company has rules in place against voter suppression it could have used to take down — or at least add warning labels to — Trump’s posts.

Last month, Facebook announced it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians — going forward. But it is not clear if Trump’s previous controversial posts would have gotten the alert. The problem, critics have long said, is not so much about Facebook’s rules as how it enforces them.

“When you elevate free expression as your highest value, other values take a back seat,” Murphy told The Associated Press. The politician exemption, she said, “elevates the speech of people who are already powerful and disadvantages people who are not.”

More than 900 companies have joined an advertising boycott of Facebook to protest its handling of hate speech and misinformation.

Civil rights leaders who met virtually with Zuckerberg and other Facebook leaders Tuesday expressed skepticism that recommendations from the audit would ever be implemented, noting that past suggestions in previous reports had gone overlooked.

“What we get is recommendations that they end up not implementing,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color for Change, one of several civil rights nonprofits leading an organized boycott of Facebook advertising.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a Facebook newsroom post that the company has a long way to go, but is making progress.

“This audit has been a deep analysis of how we can strengthen and advance civil rights at every level of our company — but it is the beginning of the journey, not the end,” she wrote. “What has become increasingly clear is that we have a long way to go. As hard as it has been to have our shortcomings exposed by experts, it has undoubtedly been a really important process for our company.”

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By BARBARA ORTUTAY AP Technology Writer.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Seitz contributed to this story.

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Civil rights groups denounce Facebook over hate speech

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Civil rights groups denounce Facebook over hate speech

Facebook keeps telling critics that it is doing everything it can to rid its service of hate, abuse and misinformation. And the company’s detractors keep not buying it.

On Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with a group of civil rights leaders, including the organizers of a growing advertising boycott over hate speech on Facebook. One of those leaders, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, said Facebook’s executives offered little but cheap talk that skirted major commitments to new rules or actions that would curb racism and misinformation on its platform.

“We’ve watched the conversation blossom into nothingness,” Johnson said. “They lack the cultural sensitivity to understand that their platform is actually being used to cause harm. Or, they understand the harm their platform is causing and they’ve chosen to take the profit.”

The NAACP was one of several groups that sent Facebook a list of 10 demands for policy change. Those included hiring a civil rights executive; banning private groups that promote white supremacy, vaccine misinformation or violent conspiracy theories; and ending an exemption that allows politicians to post voting misinformation.

Such calls have the support of big-name companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever who have yanked their Facebook ads in recent days. But nothing concrete will change for Facebook’s 2.6 billion users.

In a statement following the meeting, Facebook largely reiterated its existing policies against voter and census interference, also noting the white supremacist groups it has banned and other recent changes.

“This meeting was an opportunity for us to hear from the campaign organizers and reaffirm our commitment to combating hate on our platform,” the statement read. “We know we will be judged by our actions not by our words and are grateful to these groups and many others for their continued engagement.”

Facebook did agree to install a civil rights vice president, but didn’t say how long that would take, Jessica J. González — the co-CEO of Free Press, a group behind the boycott — told The Associated Press.

President Donald Trump frequently skirts Facebook’s posting rules, yet faces no consequences, dismaying both civil rights leaders and some of Facebook’s own employees. The president made several misleading claims about mail-in-voting in May and June posts, including one that pushed a far-fetched theory that foreign countries plan to print millions of bogus ballots. Trump also used the platform to threaten violence against racial injustice protesters in Minneapolis when he wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in a May post.

The posts have gone unchecked on Facebook. Twitter, meanwhile, has fact checked, removed or obscured some of Trump’s controversial tweets.

“When a politician, no matter who that politician is, when he makes a post that says ‘shoot the looters,’ it is not only racially insensitive, it could incite violence across the country,” Johnson said.

Last month, Facebook announced it would begin labeling rule-breaking posts — even from politicians — going forward. But it is not clear if Trump’s previous controversial posts would have gotten the label.

On Wednesday, Facebook will release the final results of its own “civil rights audit” of its U.S. practices.

The audit was led by former American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy, who was hired by Facebook in May 2018 to assess its performance on vital social issues.

More than 900 companies have joined the ad boycott, which runs through the end of July, although some companies plan to withhold their ad dollars for longer.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Sandberg emphasized what she called the company’s years of effort to “minimize the presence of hate” on Facebook and the billions of dollars it has spent “to find and remove hate — as well as protect the integrity of our platform more generally.”

Facebook’s 2019 revenue was more than $70 billion, nearly all of it from advertising.

Facebook’s inaction will only encourage companies to continue their boycott of advertising on the site for longer, said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The list is growing every day,” Greenblatt said of companies joining the boycott. “It’s unfortunate to go back to them and say we haven’t seen the progress we expected.”

By BARBARA ORTUTAY and AMANDA SEITZ Associated Press.

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COVID-19 data on Medicare’s nursing home site is incomplete

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COVID-19 data on Medicare's nursing home site is incomplete

WASHINGTON (AP) — When the Trump administration required nursing homes to report their COVID-19 cases, it also promised to make the data available to residents, families and the public in a user-friendly way.

But some facilities that have had coronavirus cases and deaths turn up as having none on Medicare‘s COVID-19 nursing home website. Those data may be incomplete because the reporting requirements don’t reach back to the start of the pandemic. Numbers don’t necessarily portray the full picture.

“The biggest thing that needs to be taken away … is in its current form, it is really leaving consumers in the dark,” Sam Brooks, project manager for Consumer Voice, said of the website, maintained by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Consumer Voice is a national advocacy group for improved quality in long-term care.

Nursing homes are only required to provide CMS with data on coronavirus cases and deaths among residents and staff as of May 8, or more than two months after the first outbreak in a U.S. facility was reported. Nursing homes have the option of full disclosure, but not all have taken it, and there is no penalty for withholding older data that may reflect poorly.

The missing information from early in the pandemic leads to some puzzling results on the website.

For example, a nursing home that had one of the first major reported outbreaks in the country — Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington — shows no confirmed COVID-19 cases and no deaths on the CMS data page.

A spokesman for Life Care Centers of America, a major chain, said the company is providing the information the government requested.

“We are reporting what CMS is asking us to report to them,” said Tim Killian. “We are not evading them in any way.

“The Kirkland facility is now COVID-free and it has been for some time,” Killian added. The data showing no cases “is a snapshot of what is currently in the facility.”

The company said its cumulative count shows 100 residents tested positive, and 34 died. “You can ask us directly and we’ll give you the exact numbers,” said Killian.

But consumer advocate Brooks said that information should be on the government website.

As it stands, the site “doesn’t tell the whole picture,” he said. “You are not going to be able to look at a home and make an informed decision.”

CMS, which sets standards for nursing homes, said protecting residents is a top priority, and “transparency and information sharing has proven to be one of the keys to the battle against this pandemic.”

But the agency said it lacked the legal authority to require nursing homes to disclose COVID-19 information from before the effective date of its reporting rule in May.

On Capitol Hill, there is pressure for more information.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently introduced legislation that would require nursing homes to report coronavirus cases and deaths going back to Jan. 1, a push that has bipartisan support.

The estimated 1.4 million people living in some 15,500 nursing homes represent a tiny share of the U.S. population, but they have borne a disproportionate share of coronavirus deaths. Nursing homes are only now starting to emerge from a national lockdown that took effect in mid-March.

According to the latest CMS figures, more than 33,000 nursing home residents have died in the pandemic. A running tally by The Associated Press, which also includes other long-term care facilities and staff as well as residents, shows more than 57,000 deaths.

Depending on the total count, that translates from about one-fourth of the deaths to more than 40%, strikingly high proportions in either case.

Coronavirus data for nursing homes do not appear directly on Medicare’s NursingHomeCompare website, the main portal for consumers trying to research a facility on behalf of a family member or friend. Instead, a link takes users to a different COVID-19 site that features statistics and a national nursing home locator map.

Finding information on individual nursing homes via the data website can be confusing.

If users type in a ZIP code or the name of a nursing home, the website’s locator map will display some small red dots near a larger marker icon, which also has a big dot in the middle.

Instructions say click on one of the dots. But which one?

The data is under the small red dots, not the larger locator, which instinctively draws the user’s eye.

“I would click on the big dot,” said policy attorney Toby Edelman of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, which represents enrollees. “Why would I look for this thing that I can barely see?”

CMS said it has received no reports related to search problems although more than 100,000 individuals accessed the site in June.

The agency says it will continue to evaluate the usability of the website to ensure it meets consumer needs.


By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR Associated Press.
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.

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