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Biden mourns 500,000 dead, balancing nation's grief and hope

WASHINGTON — With sunset remarks and a national moment of silence, President Joe Biden on Monday confronted head-on the country’s once-unimaginable loss — half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic — as he tried to strike a balance between mourning and hope.

Addressing the “grim, heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House Cross Hall, unhooked his face mask and delivered an emotion-filled eulogy for 500,071 Americans he said he felt he knew.

“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing,” he said Monday evening. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary.”

“Just like that,” he added, “so many of them took their last breath alone.”

A president whose own life has been marked by family tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms, referencing his own losses as he tried to comfort the huge number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.

“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” said Biden, who has long addressed grief more powerfully than perhaps any other American public figure. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”

The president, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer, leavened the grief with a message of hope.

“We ask you to join us, to remember so we can heal, to find purpose in the work ahead, to show that there is light in the darkness,” he said.

“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will no joy again. And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”

He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or, on the news. We must do so to honor the dead. But, equally important, to care for the living.”

The president ordered flags on federal property lowered to half staff for five days and then led the moment of communal mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday’s bleak threshold of 500,000 deaths was playing out against contradictory crosscurrents: an encouraging drop in coronavirus cases and worries about the spread of more contagious variants.

Biden’s management of the pandemic will surely define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has showcased the inherent tension between preparing the nation for dark weeks ahead while also offering optimism about pushing out vaccines that could, eventually, bring this American tragedy to a close.

After he spoke, the president along with first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff stood outside the White House for a moment of silence at sundown. Black bunting draped the doorway they walked through. Five hundred brilliantly lit candles — each standing for 1,000 people lost — illuminated the stairways on either side of them as the Marine Band played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. fatality from the coronavirus. The pandemic has since swept across the world and the U.S., stressing the nation’s health care system, rattling its economy and rewriting the rules of everyday society.

Biden unblinkingly recited the staggering statistics, noting that more Americans have died in one year in the pandemic “than in World War One or Two and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

In one of his many symbolic breaks with his predecessor, Biden has not shied away from offering remembrances for the lives lost to the virus. His first stop after arriving in Washington on the eve of his inauguration was to attend a twilight ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to mourn the dead.

That somber moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration — typically a celebratory time when America marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power — was a measure of the enormity of loss for the nation.

The COVID-19 death total in the United States had just crossed 400,000 when Biden took the oath of office. An additional 100,000 have died in the past month.

Former President Donald Trump invariably looked to play down the total, initially claiming the virus would go away on its own and later locking into a prediction that America would suffer far fewer than 100,000 deaths. Once the total eclipsed that mark, Trump shifted gears again and said that scale of loss was actually a success story because it could have been much worse.

Outside of perfunctory tweets marking the milestones of 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, Trump oversaw no moment of national mourning, no memorial service. At the Republican National Convention, he made no mention of the suffering, leaving that to first lady Melania Trump.

And at campaign rallies across the nation, he erroneously predicted that the nation was “rounding the corner” on the virus while he disregarded safety measures such as masks and pushed governors to lift restrictions against public health advice. In audio tapes released last fall, it was revealed that Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in March that “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Biden, by contrast, has long drawn on his own personal tragedy as he comforts those who grieve. He has pledged to level with the American public on the severity of the crisis and has repeatedly warned that the nation was going through a “very dark winter,” one now challenged by the arrival of more contagious virus variants.

Biden also has deliberately set expectations low — particularly on vaccinations and when the nation can return to normal — knowing he could land a political win by exceeding them. He is on track to far exceed his initial promise to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, with some public health experts now urging him to set a far more ambitious goal. The administration says it expects to have enough vaccine available for every American by the end of July.

Biden’s reference to next Christmas for a possible return to normalcy raised eyebrows across a pandemic-weary nation and seemed less optimistic than projections made by others in his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has suggested a summer comeback.

Biden boosts pandemic lending to smallest businesses
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced changes Monday to target more federal pandemic assistance to the nation’s smallest businesses and ventures owned by women and people of color.

Biden says a lot of these mom and pop businesses “got muscled out of the way” by larger businesses seeking federal money in the early days of the pandemic. He said changes taking effect Wednesday will provide long overdue aid to these smaller enterprises that he says are being “crushed” by the pandemic-driven economic downturn.

“America’s small businesses are hurting, hurting badly and they need help now,” Biden said.

Under the pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program, the administration is establishing a two-week window, starting Wednesday, in which only businesses with fewer than 20 employees — the overwhelming majority of small businesses — can apply for the forgivable loans.

Biden’s team is also carving out $1 billion to direct toward sole proprietors, such as home contractors and beauticians, the majority of which are owned by women and people of color.

Other efforts will remove a prohibition on lending to a company with at least 20% ownership by a person arrested or convicted for a nonfraud felony in the prior year, as well as allowing those behind on their federal student loans to seek relief through the program. The administration is also clarifying that noncitizen legal residents can apply to the program.

First rolled out in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and renewed in December, the program was meant to help keep Americans employed during the economic downturn. It allows small and mid-size businesses suffering loss of revenue to access federal loans, which are forgivable if 60% of the loan is spent on payroll and the balance on other qualified expenses.

The Biden effort is aimed at correcting disparities in how the program was administered by the Trump administration.

Data from the Paycheck Protection Program released Dec. 1 and analyzed by The Associated Press show that many minority owners desperate for a relief loan didn’t receive one until the PPP’s last few weeks while many more white business owners were able to get loans earlier in the program.

The program, which began April 3 and ended Aug. 8 and handed out 5.2 million loans worth $525 billion, helped many businesses stay afloat when government measures to control the coronavirus forced many to shut down or operate at a diminished capacity.

The latest PPP, which began Jan. 11 and runs through the end of March, has already paid out $133.5 billion in loans — about half of the $284 billion allocated by Congress — with an average loan under $74,000.

A further renewal of the program is not included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion “ American Rescue Plan,” which he said he hopes Congress will pass in the coming weeks.

FOP has new plan to oust Krasner in the May primary

The head of Philadelphia’s police union has a new plan to try to derail District Attorney Larry Krasner from securing a second term: Get Republican union members to switch parties so they can vote for his Democratic opponent in the May primary.

“I have people in here, as we speak, reaching out to every member, having them switch from Republican … to Democrat, and Democrat back to Republican after the primary,” John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 (FOP), said Monday during the Dom Giordano show on 1210 WPHT.

Pennsylvania has closed primary elections, meaning only a voter registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary.

So the police union’s tactic could funnel thousands of Republican voters into the Democratic primary on May 18. The union represents approximately 14,000 active and retired members.

The effect of the union’s ploy remains to be seen.

The union does not track the political affiliations of its members so it’s uncertain how many Republican members are able to switch parties, said union spokesman Mike Neilon. The police union has never attempted such a maneuver.

“It’s a full-court press for this election cycle and this particular race to knock off Krasner,” Neilon said.

McNesby and Krasner have traded political barbs since Krasner unexpectedly won the crowded Democratic primary for district attorney in 2017 and cruised to victory in the general election.

The police union is backing Carlos Vega in the Democratic primary. Vega is a former prosecutor in the district attorney’s office whom Krasner fired along with others when he took control of the office.

Krasner launched his re-election campaign earlier this month.

Brandon Evans, Krasner’s campaign manager, said in an email the campaign was not surprised by the FOP’s strategy.

“John McNesby’s goal is to make sure that officers who cause harm are not held accountable in this town, and to return this city to the earlier days of an unequal and cruel justice system,” Evans said.

“That’s not what the Philly voters want, and its definitely not what the voters in the Democratic primary want. We therefore find ourselves totally unsurprised that he’s asking his [former President Donald] Trump-supporting Republican friends to switch parties to vote for our opponent they are backing.”

Lawyer Chuck Peruto is running in the Republican primary. Peruto, a former Democrat, has said he would end his campaign if Vega defeats Krasner in the Democratic primary, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Jay McCalla, a former deputy managing director, called the police union’s ploy an attempt to “negate the Black vote,” which primarily goes with the Democratic Party in the city.

“It’s a Hail Mary pass and not likely to succeed,” McCalla said.

McCalla added that the police union’s efforts were a tacit admission that the FOP did not believe it could defeat Krasner in the general election.

“The fact that they’re using this underhanded tactic is that they don’t believe that Vega can make the arguments, that they can raise the money, that they can raise the issues and legitimately beat Krasner in the Democratic primary,” McCalla said.

Philadelphia remains a Democratic city, with registered Democrats numbering 805,483 compared with 120,166 Republicans and 130,806 non-affiliated voters, according to the Office of the City Commissioners.

While a robust 66.3% of Philadelphia voters cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, the turnout for off-year local primaries is historically meager. In the 2017 primary that Krasner won, turnout was 17%. The city also will use no-excuse mail-in voting again this year.

Trevor Maloney, a spokesman for the Vega campaign, said: "As a proud Democrat, Carlos is thrilled to see more Philadelphians joining the party to make their voices heard in this upcoming primary.

“While we don’t know what kind of effect it will have on the primary, it’s a clear sign of the enthusiasm and energy around his vision to make the city safer and fairer.”

Report examines challenges of Black professionals in corporate America

A new report by McKinsey and Company has provided the first comprehensive analysis of the experience of Black professionals in corporate America.

The Race in the Workplace: The Black Experience report maps the geographic, programmatic, and systematic barriers that are keeping Black workers largely concentrated in frontline and entry level jobs.

McKinsey and Company’s research drew on data from 24 participating companies ranging in size from 10,000 to 1.4 million U.S employees and across all geographies, representing a total of about 3.7 million U.S. employees.

The study highlights key challenges that companies need to address to create opportunities for Black workers including: higher unemployment among Black workers compared with other workers; underrepresentation of Black workers in higher-paying jobs; geographic mismatches between Black workers and opportunity; underrepresentation of Black workers in the most high-demand jobs and the disproportionate impact of technology and future of work trends on Black workers

Other challenges include a double broken rung with low odds of advancement and higher attrition for frontline and entry-level jobs; low Black representation in executive levels; a trust deficit among Black employees toward their companies and a lack of managerial sponsorship and allyship for Black employees.

“If we were to get to parity in employment rates — closing the parity gaps just on employment in the private sector, not in the whole economy — would mean creating about 418,000 more Black workers in the private sector,” said James Manyika, chairman and director of the McKinsey Global Institute and senior partner, during a webinar held Monday to highlight the report findings.

“That’s how big the gap is in the private sector,” he said.

Manyika said one of the striking aspects of the research was the geographic mismatch between employment opportunities and Black workers.

According to the study, about 60% of the Black labor force is concentrated in the South, compared with just one-third of the rest of private-sector workers.

“How do you make sure that the private sector is tapping into talent opportunities where most the Black workers actually are?,” Manyika questioned.

McKinsey’s analysis found that 45% of Black private-sector workers (approximately 6.7 million people) work in three industries that have a large frontline-service presence including healthcare, retail, and accommodation and food service. These industries also have some of the highest shares of workers making less than $30,000 annually.

The report found that on the current trajectory it would take about 95 years for Black private sector employees to reach 12% representation in management.

“While we have actually pretty good progress and representation in frontline, hourly and entry level workers into companies, that doesn’t sustain and what happens is we lose Black workers and talent quickly,” said Larenia Yee, McKinsey and Company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

“So when we get to the top and look at SVPs (senior vice presidents) and CEOs, we see very little Black representation.”

“If we were to see representation at the level of population parity and Black Americans represent 12% of our population today — we would go from the three CEOs that we have to today in Fortune 500 companies to 60,” she continued.

“If you believe the idea that if you can see it, you can be it, certainly it would be a significant step forward to see 60 Black CEOs.

This study maps the disconnects between Black workers, current diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and economic success.

McKinsey, whose mid-Atlantic office is based in Philadelphia, collaborated with PolicyLink, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Walmart to produce the study.

“McKinsey’s Race in the Workplace report is an important contribution, shining a stark light on the persistent challenges in the private sector for Black workers at all levels,” said Mahlet Getachew, managing director of Corporate Racial Equity and Legal at PolicyLink, the national research and action institute at the forefront of advancing racial and economic equity across the nation

“So, now how are we going to address the geographic mismatches between Black workers and opportunities to thrive? How will companies invest in creating greater opportunities for Black workers where they are right now?” Getachew said. “And will we seize opportunities to translate future work trends into wins for racial equity, rather than further setbacks?

“This is the work that is required right now and our hope is that these important findings help further ignite the racial equity movement more broadly and deeply within a complex America,” she continued.

Carlos Rangel, vice president and chief investment officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, highlighted the importance making sure Black employees are heard.

“One of the most powerful things about this report is how it lifts the voices and perspectives of Black people in the workforce,” he said. “It is one of the main reasons that we became a collaborator for this work. These studies help spur the conversation around facts and provide pragmatic action steps for companies to take action.

“When we authentically listen to workers — in this case Black workers — they give us the wisdom and the guidance for transforming our workplace cultures in ways of doing business, increasing employee engagement and unleashing a diverse team’s full potential,” Rangel said.

Amy Goldfinger, senior vice president of talent development at Walmart, addressed why the company partnered with McKinsey to produce the report.

“Immediately following the tragic murder of George Floyd, we focused on what we could do to make a difference at scale,” she said.

“As the largest employer in the country — which includes a workforce of approximately 300,000 Black and African-American associates — we recognize that the issues are complex and systemic.”

“We’re committed to playing a leadership role to accelerate racial equity while partnering with others to drive the challenges before us,” Goldfinger continued. “The research presented in this report is a critical step toward having a honest and truthful dialogue to drive meaningful action across the private sector.”

She said Walmart will make a difference by identifying opportunities to improve racial equity specific to the criminal justice, financial, education and health care systems.