Save the Strand!

My favorite store in the entire world might be in trouble because of COVID-19:

The Strand Book Store in New York City has stood as a source of pride for the Bass family for 93 years. With its famous slogan “18 Miles of Books,” the Manhattan shop has weathered the Great Depression, survived 9-11, and gone to battle with Amazon (AMZN) — all without a single layoff.

That all changed in March, when owner Nancy Bass Wyden, the granddaughter of founder Benjamin Bass, made the painful decision to cut nearly 200 jobs because of the coronavirus.

“We shut everything down. We shut our store down, we shut our website down, we shut our warehouses down, because we were very concerned about the safety of our employees and the customers,” Wyden told Yahoo Finance. “We went from over 200 employees to 12 employees to conserve the payroll.”

More than two months later, the Strand is still in limbo: A little more certain about its next few months with loans secured through the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but uncertain about its long term viability, given business lost from a sudden economic shock.

The store partnered with a third party seller to revive its online business, but Wyden worries if health concerns will trump the bookstore experience when she reopens.

“There’s probably going to be a mandate on how many people can be on each floor, how many people can come to events, having to distance people six feet apart … everybody’s going to wear a mask,” Wyden said. “I wonder about those components because people love to come in the store and just get lost in the stacks, and they love to browse, and I just worry is that going to get in the way of people having that freedom to browse here as long as they want to.”

Hopefully they’ll make it. No trip to NYC is complete without visiting the Strand and leaving with a book or ten.

You can buy items from them online, though shipping to Canada isn’t cheap. In the alternative, it might be nice to divert a book purchase you were going make from Amazon to a neighborhood bookstore instead.

Was Florida Man right all along?

Weeks after some Sunshine State beaches reopened and got #FloridaMorons trending on social media, Florida has suffered around 43,000 COVID-19 infections and 2,000 deaths. Not good, obviously, but not nearly as bad as predicted – and not even close to the carnage wrought by coronavirus in New York.

And yet, as Renuka Rayasam and real-life Florida Man Marc Caputo note in Politico, New York is hailed as a model of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic while Florida is dismissed as an apocalyptic wasteland:

First, let’s just come out and say it: [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis looks more right than those who criticized the Sunshine State’s coronavirus response. According to the latest Florida figures, fewer than 2,000 have died, and around 43,000 have been infected. That’s a fraction of the dire predictions made for Florida when spring breakers swarmed the beaches, and those numbers are dwarfed by similarly sized New York, which has seen 12 times more deaths and nearly eight times more infections. (Check out POLITICO’s coronavirus tracker for more.) More people reportedly died in New York nursing homes than in all of Florida.

The polling disparity: DeSantis is actually polling worse than [NY Governor Andrew] Cuomo in their respective states, and the Florida press is wondering why. Part of that is style. Cuomo has a smooth delivery, a deep and calming voice and an attitude that projects he can answer any question. DeSantis sometimes comes across as peevish and defensive, has made a misstatement or two and was mocked for struggling to put on a mask. But most of the difference between DeSantis and Cuomo is due to politics. DeSantis governs a politically divided state. Cuomo is a scion of Democratic royalty in a deeply Democratic state.

Yes, there’s media bias, too. Cuomo also has something else DeSantis doesn’t: a press that defers to him, one that preferred to cover “Florida Morons” at the beach (where it’s relatively hard to get infected) over New Yorkers riding cramped subway cars (where it’s easy to get infected). In fact, people can still ride the subways for most hours of the day in New York, but Miami Beach’s sands remain closed. Maybe things would be different if DeSantis had a brother who worked in cable news and interviewed him for a “sweet moment” in primetime.

DeSantis can’t quite take a victory lap, however. For one, he can’t take all the credit. He deferred to local leaders early on as they issued closure orders in places like Miami-Dade County — the most populous in the state, and the one with the most coronavirus cases — which shuttered dine-in restaurants and nightclubs two months ago.

And, for all of the relatively OK news about coronavirus infection and death rates, there’s a looming problem associated with coronavirus and Republican rule of the state: Florida’s horrendous unemployment compensation system, which can’t handle the volume of claims and, critics charge, was designed to discourage people from getting government help….

Florida’s warm climate could be a factor, for all we know. Either way, while it’s far too early to declare COVID-19 beaten in Florida, it’s certainly true that the worst predictions simply haven’t come true, and that media figures who pushed that narrative should admit their error and resolve to be more careful in the future.

(Note: they won’t.)

By October, if Florida has still been spared the worst, I expect the Vaccine Denier in Chief to make this media failure a part of his rambling stump speech. And for once, he’ll have a point.

Flim-Flamdemic

It took a couple of years after 9/11 for the pseudo-documentary Loose Change to come out. But in 2020, with nineteen years of technological advances and the rise of social media, a conspirozoid movie about the COVID-19 pandemic is going viral just months after the virus appeared.

So…yay?

A slickly produced 26-minute video called Plandemic has exploded on social media in recent days, claiming to present a view of COVID-19 that differs from the “official” narrative.

The video has been viewed millions of times on YouTube via links that are replaced as quickly as the video-sharing service can remove them for violating its policy against “COVID-19 misinformation.”

In it, filmmaker Mikki Willis conducts an uncritical interview with Judy Mikovits, who he says has been called “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.”

Never heard of her? You’re not alone.

Two prominent scientists with backgrounds in AIDS research and infectious diseases, who asked not to be identified over concerns of facing a backlash on social media, told NPR that they did not know who she was.

And who is the esteemed Dr. Mikovits? You guessed it: a crank.

When Judy Mikovits co-wrote a 2009 research paper that linked the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus that came from mice, thousands of sick patients hoping for relief rallied behind her. The scientific riddle was solved, they thought.

Less than two years later, those hopes were dashed when follow-up studies failed to replicate the findings and the respected journal “Science” retracted the paper. Researchers posited that the study’s inaccurate conclusions were the result of contamination of the lab samples, and the theory that a virus might be the source of the still-mysterious condition died.

But Mikovits’s conviction that her theory was correct, and her belief that the top scientific minds in the United States conspired to ruin her career, never faded.

She has now accused the scientific establishment of conspiracy again. In a film called “Plandemic,” and in a recently published book that topped the Amazon bestsellers chart this week, she makes a bizarre and false claim: that the doctors and experts shaping public policy in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic have silenced dissenting voices and misled the public for sinister reasons.

She falsely claims that wealthy people intentionally spread the virus to increase vaccination rates and that wearing face masks is harmful.

[..]

After her legal mess, Mikovits wrote her first book with anti-vaccine advocate Kent Heckenlively in 2014, called “Plague.” Their second book, “Plague of Corruption,” was published by Skyhorse Publishing this year and was listed as No. 1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list as recently as Friday morning, beating out presales for Stephanie Meyer’s upcoming addition to the massively successful “Twilight” series.

Much more about the film’s half-truths, errors and blatant lies here. Unfortunately, I’ve seen several people who should know better (and also many idiots) sharing the movie on Facebook.

The best-case scenario is that this kind of burns out like the “9/11 Truth” movement did. But considering that “Doctor” Andrew Wakefield still has followers despite being as discredited as it’s possible to be discredited, the virus troofers are likely to plague us for years to come. No pun intended.

In Australia they think they know the culprit. (To be fair I’m also in favor of arresting Bill Gates, but for Windows 95.)

Newfoundland closed

My home province has responded to COVID-19 with a travel ban that might make even Donald Trump think they’ve gone too far:

On April 29, 2020, the Chief Medical Officer of Health issued a Special Measures Order ordering that, effective May 4, 2020, the only individuals permitted to enter the province are those who are:

Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador;

Asymptomatic workers and individuals who are subject to the Updated Exemption Order effective April 22, 2020; and

Individuals who have been permitted entry to the province in extenuating circumstances, as approved in advance by the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

All other individuals are prohibited from entering Newfoundland and Labrador.

Police have been given the power to detain and remove people from the province, though early reports about police being allowed to enter homes without a warrant are being walked back.

Even during a global health emergency, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms still applies. Veteran Newfoundland blogger Edward Hollett, a former special assistant to premier Clyde Wells, raises some serious questions about whether this is constitutional:

In response to a reporter’s question about the constitutionality of the ban, health minister John Haggie replied on Monday that section 13 of the public health protection law says any measures imposed during an emergency should be limited to what is necessary. 

That reply did not address the question of whether or not the ban violates the guarantee under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Nor did the minister provide an explanation of why a ban on entry to all non-residents, except for specific exempt individuals who are also free from other restrictions, was necessary.

Section 6 (2) of the Charter provides that every Canadian has the right to “move to and take up residence in” another part of Canada.  On the face of it, this section would not confer on Canadians the right to travel but to travel related to residence.  The people covered by this section of the Charter and potentially abused by the travel ban would be any people who own property and who lie in the province periodically. 

Haggie also said other provinces had adopted similar travel bans. 
They have not.  

[…]

Potential issues with the Newfoundland and Labrador ban:

Potential constitutional violation. (Section 6(2))

Absence of explanation or justification (potential violation of Public Health Promotion and Protection Act)

Unparalleled scope and type of travel restriction (complete ban on non-residents).

No description of potential reasons for exemption that could be granted by Chief Medical Officer. (Lack of transparency and clarity)

No provision for travel related to child-custody or similar orders.

No allowance for emergencies.

Of these, the first two are the most serious.  The order may be unconstitutional.  Someone should challenge it in court.
More likely, the ban is excessive and unnecessary.  This has both political and legal dimensions. Politically, the government owes a duty of transparency to the public to explain why it is taking a measure as draconian as banning all travel to the province by non-residents.

As much as it pains me not to be able to get home this summer, I’m not going as far as Hollett and agreeing that this policy is unnecessary. To paraphrase an old Amercan saying, the Charter is not a suicide pact. But I would like to see the courts weigh in on this, and I don’t think people should just accept it uncritically.

On a related note, the Royal St. John’s Regatta has been cancelled for the first time since the Second World War. Sadly, this year, people in St. John’s won’t know the joy (or agony) of Regatta Roulette.

When someone says “it’s not about freedom of speech,” it’s definitely about freedom of speech

The Trudeau government may extend the fight against COVID-19 to limiting what you and I can say about it:

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.

LeBlanc told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins’s call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.

LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.

“Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it’s not a quick solution, but it’s certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government,” said LeBlanc.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public,” he said.

“This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it’s through troll bot farms, whether [it’s] state operators or whether it’s really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc.”

Leonard Sirota, a Canadian now teaching constitutional law in New Zealand, describes the damage this would do long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed:

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. …

[…]

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

Whenever I come across a political partisan promoting such restrictions on freedom of expression, I ask them if they’re prepared to trust these tools in the hands of the other team. You guys won’t be in power forever. When it’s your side being told what they can and can’t say, don’t whine about how you weren’t warned.

Co-parenting during the pandemic

It’s the question I’ve been asked more than any other since the age of social distancing began: how does this affect parenting time with my children?

The answer, as reported in the Chronicle Herald:

While safety precautions must be kept in mind, court orders and agreements for parenting time must be followed by both parents:

Shared parenting can be done safely during the pandemic by following public health guidance, says a Nova Scotia family law expert.

“As long as both parents follow the public health directives they should continue to comply with their parenting orders and agreements,” said Rollie Thompson, a Dalhousie University law professor.

The province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang created unnecessary confusion for co-parents on March 31 when he said in his daily briefing that children should remain in one home during the COVID-19 lockdown, Thompson said.

Strang backtracked the next day, acknowledging he was offering a public health perspective and reminded parents to follow court orders and parenting arrangements. He said parents could get advice from a lawyer or Nova Scotia Legal Aid and “if possible and safe to do so … should develop a plan with the understanding that moving about in the community and going from house to house does increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”

“I think Dr. Strang should stick to public health and stay away from family law,” said Thompson.

Thompson, an expert in family law, co-wrote the federal government’s Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines. He said that the vast majority of co-parents in the province can be counted on to follow the social distancing rules. That includes moving kids from one parent’s home to another.

Thompson’s advice to co-parents and their kids is to follow four instructions during the pandemic:

– continue to comply with parenting orders and agreements;

– comply with public health directives to protect your health;

– when health or other unexpected problems arise, be flexible to do what’s in the best interests of your children;

– and above all, work together and avoid conflict.

[…]

The Nova Scotia Judiciary said that existing court orders around parenting time continue to be in effect during the COVID-19 crisis. Jennifer Stairs, a spokeswoman for the judiciary, said those orders — including those involving custody, access, contact and parenting — could be negotiated as long as all parties involved agree.

Unfortunately, I’ve already been forced to deal with several cases where a parent either believes the COVID-19 pandemic means they can’t allow their child to spend time with the other parent, or where they’re using it as an excuse to deny access.

If this is happening to you, contact your lawyer immediately. If you aren’t yet represented by counsel, Nova Scotia Legal Aid may be of assistance:

Nova Scotia Legal Aid is offering help for parents trying to wade through the confusion. Lawyers will process emergency family matters for people who qualify for legal aid. Free twice-weekly online chats are also being offered on the Nova Scotia Legal Aid website. Lawyers will be manning the online discussions on family law issues. They are scheduled Tuesday and Thursday, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Those who don’t qualify for legal aid can access family summary advice at all courthouses through scheduled telephone appointments.

COVID-19 and the courts

The courts of Nova Scotia have issued several memoranda explaining how its practices and procedures have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic:

If you are dealing with any legal matters at the moment, make sure to contact your lawyer and check the courts website to see how your case is being affected.

As for me, my office is closed to the public and I’m working from home. But I’m still meeting with clients when needed – albeit by teleconference or video calling apps. My contact information remains the same, but regular mail may be delayed – email or fax is the best way to get a hold of me.

In the meantime, stay home and keep washing those hands!