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Long Story Short: Inconvenient truths, enforcement, and bags


Pandemic rollercoaster

Last week we discussed the great mask debate, now in its second wave. We also looked at how well New York—especially Western New York—is doing in the battle against COVID-19, compared to states such as Florida, which opened too quickly. If you want to know exactly how we’re doing compared to other places in the country, there’s a new, first-of-its-kind tool, with up to the moment infection numbers. It’s called Pandemics Explained, by the Harvard Global Health Institute. In a single website, “researchers and public health experts unite to bring clarity to key metrics guiding coronavirus response.”


The site has all sorts of information, but perhaps most useful is the U.S. map that rates every region of the country on a four-color scale. Users can zoom in to individual counties and hover the pointer over them to find out how many new cases per one-thousand people a region is experiencing daily. As of Saturday, Erie County was at 3.6, making us a yellow zone, which is not bad. Wyoming County, by comparison, is .7 per thousand, making it a green zone, which means it’s on track for containment.  


It’s tempting to say the red zones are in red states, which is often true, but then there’s California, which is experiencing a serious spike despite being one of the first states to close down. After cautiously reopening, California is now closing again as it approaches crisis level.


Which brings us to the bad news

I would love to echo President Trump in saying that COVID-19 is going to magically disappear, but the reality is much more dire. The following information comes from an article on Blue Zones, a website dedicated to discovering regions of the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives, and the life-enhancing characteristics they have in common. So, the “blue” in Blue Zone has nothing to do with Democrats; in fact, the locations are indifferent to politics. This is strictly science-based.


Recently the site published an interview with Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, an internationally known expert in infectious disease epidemiology who has advised both Democratic and Republican Presidents. The interviewer poses a variety of topical questions and gets answers no one wants to hear. I urge LSS readers to sit down with a stiff drink and read the entire interview. If you’re not up to that, at least read the interviewer’s summary of the interview.


Here’s a summary of the summary

There’s something for everyone to dislike in this article, regardless of political beliefs. The following are some keys points from the article in my own words; I recommend reading the full text for the reasoning behind them.

•For much of last month, COVID-19 was the #1 cause of death in the U.S. In that sense, it’s worse than the 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic.
•COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon.
•For younger people, being obese is the greatest risk factor for death.
•You should think in terms of physical distancing—not social distancing. Being in the presence of people is important. Being outside is the best way to do this safely.
•Getting outside is also important.
•You’re not going to get infected by passing someone who is unmasked.
•Masks are of limited protective value if you are indoors in close proximity. They may buy you a few extra minutes before being infected.
•“This virus doesn’t magically jump between two people — it’s time and dose.”
•The darkest days of the pandemic are ahead.
•America needs a pandemic czar, with the backbone of FDR or Winston Churchill.
•The worst-case scenario is that the virus disappears over the summer. Best case is it just continues (read the article to see why).
•Five percent of the population has been infected to date. To get to herd immunity without a vaccine, sixty or seventy percent must get the virus. That means between 800,000 and •1.6 million people could easily die from this virus over the course of the next twelve to eighteen months.
•The Sweden model was a myth and it’s now heavily criticized within Sweden itself, to the point where there’s a criminal investigation. Sweden has one of the highest death rates in the world in terms of the number of people that have died per population.
•There is no guarantee of an effective vaccination. Even if we find one, it may only give short term protection.
•Speeding a vaccination into production carries its own risks.


And there’s more, much more. One thing that comes through is that we need to prepare to live with this long term. And yes, that means finding ways to open up the country, though more wisely than we have been so far. And I will say that while it’s not expressly stated, Americans have to stop being stupid. That’s true in all directions. Stop denying the science because it’s politically or economically inconvenient, but don’t hide under your bed reading every frightening article you come across.


Next up

As long as we’re dishing on bad news, there’s a new swine flu developing in China that has the potential to morph into a human pandemic. One study calls for urgent measures to monitor people working with pigs. The World Health Organization stresses the need to keep on top of such potential zoonotic infections, which are fairly common. I’ll add that the world needs a plan for working together to catch and squash new viruses early.


Special thanks

Much gratitude goes out to LSS reader and friend Ellie McConnell, for providing a steady stream of articles and other materials, which are often useful for writing LSS stories. It’s like having my own research assistant.



Cops gone wild

You’d think with the recent focus on inappropriate police conduct, cops would be on their best behavior, at least until the heat dies down. And yet, nationally, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atlanta police killed Rayshard Brooks for sleeping in his car in a drive-through, a half-dozen officers were charged with senselessly attacking two college students who were sitting in their car during protests, and eight Louisiana police officers broke the eye socket of Chico Bell (and the nose of his passenger), after being pulled over. It goes on.


Hometown abuse

Then, here in Buffalo, you have Lieutenant Michael Delong. Recently, at a 7-Eleven off Niagara Street, a woman recorded the conversation as she confronted Delong about the need for ten police to handle one unarmed man on drugs. She was persistent, but not discourteous.  Apparently, Delong views challenges to his authority as disrespectful. He calls the woman a “disrespectful little fucking cunt.” It’s interesting to note, that Delong has nothing particular to do during the encounter except stand on the sidewalk with his hands tucked into his bullet-proof-vest some distance away from the intoxicated man and other police. The woman responds to his remarks by saying, “Thank you; you’re going to be viral.” Then, for no apparent reason, Delong orders her off the public sidewalk. Later he follows the woman as she is driving and pulls her over for “valid reasons.”


What, me worry?

Some officers seem slow to catch on. During their video chat, Delong says into the camera that he doesn’t care if the recording goes viral, but he may be reassessing that position now, since he was suspended without pay pending an investigation. "As soon as Commissioner Lockwood became aware of the incident,” says Mayor Byron Brown in a public statement, “he immediately opened an investigation and suspended the officer involved. I fully support the commissioner's swift actions. There is no place for that type of reprehensible conduct in the Buffalo Police Department and it will not be tolerated.”


We’ll see.



Parking and other amnesty programs

Mayor Brown had announced earlier that the temporary COVID-19 suspension of alternate parking and metered parking would end July 1, but a campaign by residents caused him to partially reverse the decision.


The fine print

On June 24, the mayor announced that “Due to an overwhelming response by residents” the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. alternate parking regulations will remain suspended until September. Streets with alternate parking from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. were never suspended and remain in effect. Parking meter fines were suspended, but now they are back in effect.



The mayor announced a Reform Agenda Amnesty Program to “assist low-income city residents.” Here’s the details: All late fees for parking tickets issued prior to June 30, 2019 are being waved. And to sweeten the deal, residents can pay while observing physical and social distancing required to protect public health. So now all you have to do is pay the original fines.  



A Water Bill Amnesty Program waives late fees and interest for individuals who have had their service turned off due to delinquent payments. Those opting into the program will also have other fees suspended, including for burst meters. Here’s the fine print: there will be a ten percent down payment of the remaining principal balance and the homeowner must agree to a twelve-month repayment plan. The homeowner must also allow advanced meter-reading technology to be installed and sign-up for automatic monthly payments.


Future traffic tickets

A new Buffalo Motorist Assistance Program will give residents who plead guilty to low-level moving or equipment violations the opportunity receive reduced fines based on income status. This is a significant reform. As we outlined in the August, 2018 LSS, traffic violations and their related fees are a lucrative source of government income that disproportionately impacts poor and minority motorists.


Not far enough

This may not go far enough. Consider: it’s appropriate to adjust tickets downward based on income, so why not adjust them in the other direction when equally appropriate? A wealth adjustment, if you will. If the mayor wants to make traffic tickets fairer, while rendering them more effective at controlling driving violations, multi-millionaires who drive ninety-five MPH because a $300 speeding fine means nothing to them, might receive, for instance, a $20,000 fine. If they’re driving a Lamborghini, double that.


That might really level the playing field.


All three amnesty programs continue until the end of the year. For more information on these programs, visit wwwbuffalony.gov.



Bag dilemma

LSS story topics originate from a variety of sources. News reports, of course. Sometimes people suggest ideas, or I’ll be talking to someone and an interesting subject comes up. High on the list though, is social media, particularly Facebook. Still, I wasn’t expecting a recent off-the-cuff posted comment to become blog fodder, but it generated surprisingly spirited responses.


“I have finally counted,” I wrote. “I have twenty-three reusable grocery bags in my car. And yet, every time I shop, I forget to bring them in.” Unbeknown to me, I had tapped into one heck of a somethingburger for our times. The post got almost 150 views, a couple shares, and more than seventy comments.


Supermarket zeitgeist

Ever since March 1, 2020—just as pandemic pandemonium was throttling up—New York State banned plastic bags at grocery checkouts. Customers are now encouraged to bring reusable sacks when shopping.


What can be derived from the response to the post is that many of us take the plastic ban to heart (despite the fact that it might actually be making the situation worse). It’s not uncommon to have acquired a quantity of reusable shopping bags and then to consistently leave them at home or in cars when shopping. The post was met with a chorus of me-toos, with several readers proposing solutions to the problem: some serious, some facetious. These include sticky-note reminders, tying a bag to your finger, attaching them with mitten clips, and keeping them in the front seat so you see them.


A few suggested what I already often resort to by default: reloading the groceries into the cart as they’re scanned at the checkout and bagging them at the car. This can get tricky with a large grocery load and exasperating if it’s raining. And we haven’t even gotten to the cold weather months yet.


The award for the most high-tech solution goes to Rob Leach, who offered the following: “If your car supports CarPlay, you can create reminders that are triggered when you turn off your car. And if you use some other more sophisticated mechanisms, you can create them for when you turn off your car at the grocery store. I’ve tried to do this using geofences and IFTTT connected to my Automatic car computer port dongle, but it wasn’t quick enough to remind me before I was already in the store. I think I could do it if I had CarPlay though. However, you can set a geofence reminder for when you arrive at the grocery store that’s only based on a geofence, but the annoying thing about that is that it goes off whenever you drive by the store.”


Um, yeah.


Then Leach added without intended irony: “I refrained from getting more technical. I could have gone into raspberry pi, node red, webhooks and webhook relay, Bluetooth, and automatic reminder creation via AppleScript...”


Search engine solutions

With so much interest on the topic, I checked out what my buddy Google has to say. Typing the phrase “forgetting shopping bags,” the first two pages consisted of twenty articles with variations on the title, “Twelve (or another quantity) tips (tricks or hacks) for remembering to bring reusable bags.” Most of the suggestions in the linked articles are useless though. For instance: “Put your reusable bags back in your car, handbag, on a shelf by the front door after you unpack them.” I don’t have a handbag, and if they sit in one place for more than a few days, they become part of the landscape, ceasing to be consciously visible.


One site titled Read This and Never Forget Your Reusable Shopping Bag Again, attempts to enlighten and shock readers into better recall. A few examples: “Plastic bags account for twelve percent of marine debris,” “86 percent of sea turtles have plastic in their intestines” and “Ninety-nine percent of seabirds will have eaten plastic by the year 2050.” None of these facts impress me for two reasons. First, in New York State there is no longer an option to get single use plastic bags, so guilt is not a motivator. Second, humans consume about a credit card worth of plastic each week. So, take that, sea turtles and birds.  


You are what you tote

Consider that the reusable bags you carry, are a statement about who you are. Certainly, bag-manufacturers consider this; each reusable sack carries a logo promoting a business or cause, thus announcing to the world your implied support. I always feel a twinge of guilt when I bring Wegmans bags to Tops. It’s like wearing Gucci shoes to a dive bar.

My bags include:

Five reusable Tops plastic bags (the five-cent kind you get when you are forced by circumstance to use theirs)

Three sturdy Wegmans bags, plus one deluxe Wegmans frozen food thermal bag (which I have never used for frozen foods)

Six Lexington Co-op canvas bags 

Three Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center canvas bags

One Ameritech library service canvas bag

One Ohio Arts Council canvas bag

One C-Span Classroom canvas bag

One UB canvas bag

And, of course, one Buffalo Spree canvas bag.

An arts and culture dude who shops around: that’s me.

Parting thoughts


All this forgotten bag talk prompted me to consider some possibilities. GPS units already tell you when gas stations are ahead. Why can’t they shout out a bag reminder when your car stops at a grocery store? Shock collars are used train dogs not to bark. How about necklaces or watchbands that send a shock when you walk toward a grocery store without a (microchipped) bag? I guarantee you will form a new habit in under a month. Too extreme? How about a reward system? Stores give out five percent discounts to anyone carrying reusable bags as they walk through the entrance—ten percent if it’s their store brand! Maybe reusable bags need a Smoky-the-Bear sort-of spokesanimal; Petro-the-Penguin says, “I’m sick of eating your goddamned plastic.”  


As for me, I’ve now gathered and organized my twenty-three bags in a plastic box bought expressively for this purpose, so they aren’t scattered throughout my vehicle. Maybe this act will imprint the importance of the bags on my brain. We’ll see.


Now if I can just remember my mask before I’m halfway across the parking lot.


Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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