10 things you need to know today: March 6, 2021
COVID-19 stimulus bill on track to pass after Democrats reach unemployment compromise, Pope Francis meets with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, and more
COVID-19 stimulus bill on track to pass after Democrats reach unemployment compromise
After nine hours of negotiations, Senate Democrats reached a compromise on enhanced unemployment benefits in President Biden's COVID-19 stimulus plan. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a crucial moderate vote on the Democratic side, had expressed concern about raising the existing $300 per week benefit (which is set to expire on March 14) to $400 per week, but he came around on a new deal that kept the payments at $300 while extending them until early October. Additionally, the bill now forgives $10,200 in taxes on unemployment benefits received in 2020. With the agreement in place, and Manchin and other centrist Democrats seemingly on board, the stimulus package is on track to pass as early as Saturday with a simple majority vote. It won't, however, include a gradual $15 per hour minimum wage hike. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led a push to add that to the bill, but eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting against it.
Pope Francis meets with Iraq's top Shiite cleric
Pope Francis on Saturday met with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The historic 40-minute conservation was said to be "very positive." Francis made the trip to Iraq to show support for the country's persecuted Christian minority. After the meeting, al-Sistani, a deeply-revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq, issued a statement affirming that Christians should "live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights," adding that religious authorities should play a role in protecting them. Francis thanked al-Sistani for raising "his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted." The pope then traveled to the ancient city of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, a revered figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. During an interfaith prayer service, Francis called for peace in the region and decried "hostility, extremism, and violence," which he said were "betrayals of religion."
CDC study finds mask mandates reduced COVID-19 cases and deaths
A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has found that mask mandates have been associated with fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths. The mask mandates were associated with a 1.9 percentage point decrease in COVID-19 death growth rates 100 days after being implemented, the CDC study said. Additionally, it found that allowing on-premises dining at restaurants was "associated with increases in daily COVID-19 case growth rates," as well as increases in death growth rates. The study was released days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced the statewide mask mandate there would be lifted, a step that was also taken in Mississippi. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned states against easing their COVID-19 restrictions, saying the U.S. could "completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."
Half of all U.S. seniors have been vaccinated against COVID-19
Half of all Americans aged 65 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, citing numbers through Thursday. About 27.5 million of the 54.1 million seniors in the U.S. have been vaccinated, notable given that the age group accounts for more than four in five COVID-19 deaths. But Bloomberg reports the second half of Americans aged 65 and up will be more challenging to reach, because about 12.4 million are either not sure they want a vaccine, would only get one if mandated, or may refuse to take it at all, polling shows. The U.S. recorded 64,817 new cases on Thursday, and the seven-day average of newly reported deaths fell to 1,730, the lowest since Dec. 2. Nearly 521,000 have died in the U.S. since the pandemic began.
More than 20,000 U.S. Microsoft customers hit in cyberattack
More than 20,000 businesses, government offices, and schools in the United States have been compromised during a cyberattack on Microsoft's Outlook email software, people familiar with the matter told Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. The total number of customers could be much larger, perhaps reaching 250,000, per the Journal. Hackers have been exploiting a series of flaws in Microsoft's Exchange software to break into email accounts. Multiple hacking groups with links to the Chinese government have reportedly been identified as the culprits behind the hack, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday "could have far-reaching consequences." A Chinese government spokesman said Beijing was not behind the attack, Reuters reports. The breach is more widespread than the SolarWinds cyberattack, believed to be carried out by Russian-backed groups, albeit less targeted.
U.S. economy adds 379,000 jobs in February, beating expectations
The Labor Department said Friday the U.S. economy added 379,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate declined slightly to 6.2 percent. This was above the 210,000 jobs economists were expecting. Last month's jobs report showed the U.S. economy added only 49,000 jobs in January, which experts at the time said pointed to sluggish improvement in the labor market. But that January number on Friday was revised up to 166,000. "In February, most of the job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, with smaller gains in temporary help services, health care and social assistance, retail trade, and manufacturing," the Labor Department said. "Employment declined in state and local government education, construction, and mining." The Washington Post notes this is still "below the rate needed to regain the more than nine million jobs lost since last year."
Police break up Myanmar protests with tear gas, stun grenades
Police reportedly used tear gas and stun grenades to break up an anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar, one of several sporadic demonstrations across the country on Saturday. No casualties have been reported. More than 50 people, including 38 on Wednesday alone, have been killed since the protests began last month. On Friday, a group representing lawmakers elected at the last election that has begun to issue statements in the name of a civilian government, listed four demands, including the end of the military junta (which seized power in a coup on Feb. 1), the release of detainees, the restoration of democracy, and the abolition of the 2008 constitution which allowed the military to hold on to a significant amount of political control. Meanwhile, United Nations Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener said in a closed door meeting that "it is critical" that the U.N. Security Council put security forces "on notice" and stand "firmly" with Myanmar's people.
Protests continue in Senegal following opposition leader's arrest
Demonstrators clashed with police in Senegal on Friday as protests continued for the third straight day following the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition leader. The government has vowed to restore order by "all means necessary," and internet access has reportedly been restricted. Sonko, a tax inspector who came in third in Senegal's 2019 presidential election, was detained Wednesday on charges of disturbing public order after his supporters took to the streets following the revelation of a rape allegation made against him. Sonko, who appeared in court Friday, has denied the allegations, and his supporters believe they're part of an attempt by the sitting government to undermine him, Reuters reports. Four people have reportedly died during what's considered Senegal's most significant political unrest in several years.
Two top Cuomo aides leave amid sexual harassment, nursing home scandals
Two top female aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) are reportedly departing his administration as the governor continues to grapple with two growing scandals. Press secretary Caitlin Girouard and interim policy adviser Erin Hammond both left Cuomo's administration on Friday. The governor's office said Hammond had been set to leave for several months, and Girouard says she accepted another job in January. But the departures come as Cuomo is facing growing criticism and calls to resign in the wake of three allegations of sexual harassment, including from two former aides. Additionally, The New York Times reported that Cuomo aides rewrote a report to take out the number of New York nursing home residents who died from COVID-19.
NASA's Perseverance completes first test drive on Mars
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover successfully completed its initial test drive on the surface of the red planet, two weeks after touching down. It was a short excursion — just over 21 feet — but one that is considered a significant milestone. NASA released a photo from the rover showing its own tire tracks after the test. Aside from going for a quick spin, Perseverance has reportedly been sailing through the rest of its lengthy checkout and activation process. The rover "has been doing an excellent job during her first two weeks" on Mars, Robert Hogg, the deputy manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said. Once everything is completely satisfactory, Perseverance will be to drive for an average of 200 meters per day as it explores the Martian surface, NASA says.