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Health – Wall Street Observer

Wall Street Observer

Wall Street Observer

Economic pain from pandemic upends the lives of restaurant owners, entertainers

By Vanessa Johnston

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (Reuters) – The reality has not yet sunk in for Pepe Diaz that the beloved deli he ran with his brother for more than 30 years is permanently shut.

“The camaraderie with all the students and the regular customers, I miss all that,” he said, outside Howard Deli in Washington.

Before the pandemic, the shop had been a lively neighborhood hangout. But sales plummeted without the foot traffic of students from Howard University and the local high school.

    Making matters worse, Diaz’s brother Kenny Gilmore suffered several strokes. With bills piling up, the brothers closed the deli in January.

“This had to be the worst. Everything else we weathered through,” Diaz said of the pandemic.

Howard Deli is not alone.

By the end of 2020, about 17% of all U.S. restaurants – about 110,000 – had closed long term or shuttered for good, according to the National Restaurant Association.

    Matt Strickland is determined that his business will not be next.

    The owner of Gourmeltz in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is continuing to operate his restaurant even though he said his license had been revoked by health officials for failing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

    “The people who are putting these mandates and regulations on us, they haven’t missed one paycheck. They haven’t suffered through this like we have,” said Strickland.

    Strickland said he has many supporters in the community. But health officials say they have received more than 50 complaints about Gourmeltz over its flouting of safety measures such as wearing masks, according to local media.

  The Spotsylvania County health department did not respond to a request for comment.

The economic pain goes well beyond the restaurant industry. The U.S. economy lost 22 million jobs at the height of the pandemic and is still 10 million jobs short of where it was a year ago.

    Before the pandemic, Sharon Clark spent 11 years as a full-time jazz singer, traveling to Russia, France and South Africa.

    So when a year’s worth of concerts were canceled in early 2020, she panicked.

    “For the first time in my whole 11 years, I was asking myself and asking God, ‘What am I going to do?'” said Clark, a single mother of a teenage daughter. “Who’s going to keep the cell phones on… who’s going to pay the cable bill?”

    Clark said she feels optimistic that her singing work will pick up by summer.

    “I’m going to sing until I can’t anymore. But I’m going to learn to do something else – just in case,” she said.

(Reporting by Vanessa Johnston; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)





Digital health checks vital to travel recovery, Heathrow says

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Digital health checks will be vital to a recovery in foreign travel from the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s Heathrow airport said on Wednesday, after a collapse in passenger numbers saw it plunge to a 2 billion pound ($2.8 billion) loss last year.

The UK government said on Monday trips abroad could restart in mid-May as its vaccination campaign kicks in, sparking a surge in holiday bookings.

It is also looking into a digital health passport or app to help ease restrictions, while conceding the benefits have to be weighed against potential risks to civil liberties.

But Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said digital technology, and international agreements, would be vital to reviving a travel industry on its knees.

“It’s absolutely critical and that’s one of the main things that government needs to work on,” he said, when asked about a digital health app.

At present, paper checks on COVID-19 test results and passenger locator forms take 20 minutes per traveller at Heathrow, making travel near impossible should passenger numbers rise from current low levels.

Britain’s biggest airport said it was “very likely” people would be able to go on their summer holidays, but expects passenger numbers will take time to recover.

The airport, west of London, is forecasting 25 million passengers in the second half of the year, meaning it would be operating at about 50% capacity.

Heathrow, owned by Spain’s Ferrovial, the Qatar Investment Authority, China Investment Corp and others, last year lost its title as Europe’s busiest airport to Paris after its flight schedules shrank more than those of its rivals.

Passenger numbers plunged 73% to 22 million people last year, with half of those travelling during January and February, before the pandemic shut down global travel in March.

Heathrow said it had 3.9 billion pounds of liquidity, giving it sufficient resources to keep going with low levels of traffic until 2023, despite the 2 billion loss before tax for 2020.

The airport urged the government to provide business tax breaks for big airports, something only available to smaller airports so far, and to extend the furlough job support scheme to help it financially before the recovery takes off.

(Reporting by Sarah Young. Editing by James Davey and Mark Potter)


Don’t ignore “lockdown fatigue”, UK watchdog tells finance bosses

By Huw Jones

LONDON (Reuters) – Staff at financial firms in Britain are suffering from “lockdown fatigue” and their bosses are not always making sure all employees can speak up freely about their problems, the Financial Conduct Authority said on Monday.

Many staff at financial companies have been working from home since Britain went into its first lockdown in March last year to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

One year on, the challenges have evolved from adapting to working remotely to dealing with mental health issues, said David Blunt, the FCA’s head of conduct specialists.

“During this third lockdown, there has been a greater impact on mental well-being, with many people struggling with job security, caring responsibilities, home schooling, bereavements and lockdown fatigue.”

Bosses should continually revisit how they lead remote teams, he said.

“The impact of COVID-19 is creating a huge workload for those considered to be high performers, while the remote environment potentially makes it much more challenging for those who were previously considered low performers to change that perception,” Blunt told a City & Financial online event.

Companies should consider “psychological safety” or ensuring that all employees feel confident about speaking out and challenging opinions.

“We’ve heard varying reports of how successful this has been,” Blunt said.

Pressures in the financial sector were highlighted this month when accountants KPMG said its UK chairman Bill Michael had stepped aside during a probe into comments he made to staff.

The Financial Times said Michael, who later apologised for his comments, had told staff to “stop moaning” about the impact of the pandemic on their work lives.

Blunt was speaking as the FCA next month completes the full rollout of rules that force senior managers at financial firms to be personally accountable for their decisions to improve conduct standards.

There have only been a “modest” number of breaches reported to regulators so far as firms worry about being “tainted” but more cases will become public as sanctions are revealed, Blunt said.

“Regulators won’t be impressed by lowballing the figures.”

(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)


Exclusive: White House working with Facebook and Twitter to tackle anti-vaxxers

(This Feb 19 story corrects name of group in paragraph 11 to Center for Countering Digital Hate instead of Center for Countering Digital Health)

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House has been reaching out to social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s Google about clamping down on COVID misinformation and getting their help to stop it from going viral, a senior administration official said.

President Joe Biden, who has raced to curb the pandemic since taking office, has made inoculating Americans one of his top priorities and called the move “a wartime effort.” But tackling public fear about taking the vaccine has emerged as a major impediment for the administration.

Since the onset of the pandemic, calls from lawmakers asking the companies to tackle the spread of COVID misinformation on their platforms have grown.

The White House’s direct engagement with the companies to mitigate the challenge has not been previously reported. Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain has previously said the administration will try to work with Silicon Valley on the issue.

“Disinformation that causes vaccine hesitancy is going to be a huge obstacle to getting everyone vaccinated and there are no larger players in that than the social media platforms,” said the source, who has direct knowledge of the White House’s efforts.

“We are talking to them … so they understand the importance of misinformation and disinformation and how they can get rid of it quickly.”

The Biden White House is especially trying to make sure such material “does not start trending on such platforms and become a broader movement,” the source said.

The source cited the example of the anti-vaccine protests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in early February, and said the White House wants to stop events like that from happening again.

The protest, organized on Facebook through a page that promotes debunked claims about the coronavirus pandemic, masks and immunization, briefly blocked public access to the stadium – one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, where health authorities are administering more than 8,000 vaccines a day.

The event illustrated the extent to which social media platforms have become a critical organizing tool for movements such as the anti-vaccine drive, that spread misinformation and disinformation.

A growing number of anti-vaccine activists, emboldened by their rising social media following, have helped the movement gain strength in the United States. A report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate in July 2020 found social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7·8 million people since 2019.

The companies have repeatedly vowed to get rid of such material on their platforms but gaps remain in their enforcement efforts.

On Thursday, Senator Richard Blumenthal criticized the platforms in a tweet for carrying ads that he said funds and promotes “dangerous conspiracy theories, COVID-19 disinformation and malign foreign propaganda.”

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company has reached out to the White House to offer “any assistance we can provide” and has recently announced a new policy to remove COVID and vaccine misinformation along with pages, groups, and accounts that repeatedly spread such material.

A Twitter spokesman said the company is “in regular communication with the White House on a number of critical issues including COVID-19 misinformation.”

Alphabet Inc’s Google did not comment on engagement with the White House, instead pointing to a company blog on and how it stops misinformation.

The source said the companies “were receptive” as they engaged with the White House. “But it is too soon to say whether or not it translates into lessening the spread of misinformation.”

There will be more details on how the White House is engaging with the social media companies on this issue in the “next ten days or so”, the source added.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington, Editing by Chris Sanders and Nick Zieminski)





U.S. House Democrats advance $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid bill

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s push for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill took a step forward on Friday as a U.S. House of Representatives committee unveiled the legislation Democrats hope to pass by late next week.

The 591-page bill, stitched together by the House Budget Committee, would carry out Biden’s proposals to provide additional money for COVID-19 vaccines and other medical equipment.

Biden toured a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing plant in Portage, Michigan, amid efforts to ramp up production, with only about 15% of the U.S. population vaccinated against the coronavirus so far.

He said he was open to proposals to make the package less expensive. Referring to Republican critics, Biden said, “Let me ask them what would they have me cut, what would they have me leave out.”

Besides the additional funding for medical supplies, major components of the massive aid plan focus on stimulating the country’s economy, which has struggled over the past year under job layoffs and shuttered businesses resulting from a pandemic that has killed nearly 500,000 Americans. The plan would offer direct payments to households, extended federal unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and other steps.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she was aiming for a vote in the Democratic-controller chamber on passing the bill — a top priority of the new Democratic Biden administration — by the end of next week.

Earlier on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a fellow Democrat, said his deeply divided chamber will pass the bill before March 14, when the latest round of federal unemployment benefits expire.

While Schumer said he welcomed “constructive amendments” by Republicans, he added in a letter to rank-and-file Democrats: “Make no mistake: the era of Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard is over.”

Senator McConnell, a Republican, served as majority leader from 2015-2020 and had proudly labeled himself the “Grim Reaper” of legislative initiatives from the Democratic House.

Included in the House bill is a controversial proposal to gradually raise the federal minimum wage, now set at $7.25 an hour, to $15 by 2025.

The provision faces multiple difficulties: Republicans oppose it and at least two moderate Senate Democrats have warned they, too, would vote against it, which would sink the wage increase in a Senate split 50-50.

More importantly, the Senate parliamentarian might prohibit the measure altogether, under arcane Senate rules governing “reconciliation” bills such as this one that allow it to move through the chamber by simple majority votes. Most other bills need to have the backing of at least 60 senators to clear procedural hurdles.

The House Budget Committee is set to meet Monday to weigh amendments to the bill before sending it to the full House for debate and passage.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper in Portage, Michigan; Editing by Leslie Adler and Diane Craft)


Major U.S. airlines will voluntarily collect international contact tracing info

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Major U.S. airlines on Friday said they would adopt a voluntary international contact tracing program, months after the White House under then-President Donald Trump blocked a mandatory effort.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and other major airlines said they had committed to collecting contact tracing data from passengers traveling into the United States and to relaying that data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if travelers provide information.

In August, Trump officials rejected an effort to require airlines to collect contact tracing information from U.S.-bound international passengers after some senior administration officials cited privacy concerns, Reuters reported.

Major airlines and administration officials had held talks for months over a long-standing CDC effort to mandate the collection and reporting of tracing information from international passengers.

In February 2020, the CDC issued an interim final rule to require airlines to collect five contact data elements from international passengers, including phone numbers, and electronically submit them to Customs and Border Protection to facilitate contact tracing. But the rule was never enforced.

Airlines protested, arguing they could not provide such information, especially from passengers booking tickets through third-party websites. Airlines backed setting up a website and a mobile application for passengers to send contact information directly to the CDC.

Nick Calio, who heads airline trade association Airlines for America, said airlines were hopeful the voluntary effort and COVID-19 international passenger testing requirements adopted last month by the CDC “will lead policymakers to lift travel restrictions.”

President Joe Biden in January reimposed an entry ban on nearly all non-U.S. travelers who have recently been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders that Trump had sought to end – and quickly added South Africa to the list.

There is no immediate indication the CDC will move quickly to drop those restrictions, some of which have been in place for almost a year.

(This story fixes typo in headline from contract to contact)

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)



Take Five: Bond yield rise might be the real thing

LONDON (Reuters) –


Higher U.S. Treasury yields have so far done little more than jolt equity markets off record highs. That will change if “real” yields — adjusted for inflation — take off.

It was last year’s real yield plunge which sent cash flooding into stocks; while expensive, they looked like a good deal compared with real yields of minus 1%.

But big-time government spending plans and prospects of economic reopening have lifted real 30-year Treasury yields to eight-month highs, just 11 basis points shy of 0%. Ten-year real yields are at five-week peaks.

There’s little consensus on when yields will become a problem for equities. But some assets are already seeing an impact — gold for instance struggles to compete with income-bearing investments when yields rise and is down 6% this year.

Graphic: It’s getting real – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-BONDS/REAL/rlgpdejxyvo/chart.png


The Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s meeting on Wednesday might tell us if the first country to reduce COVID-19 cases almost completely will also be the first to consider cutting back monetary policy support.

A lot has changed since the RBNZ’s November policy statement. The kiwi economy is beating forecasts and markets are no longer pricing in negative rates.

Governor Adrian Orr will revise up forecasts for growth and inflation but he faces a communications challenge: acknowledging improvement without spooking markets.

A rate rise may be years away but the prospect of a stimulus slowdown is on investors’ minds — 10-year sovereign bond yields are up 50 bps this year.

Graphic: New Zealand’s economy bounces back – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/oakveredjpr/Pasted%20image%201613729699719.png


Debt relief for low-income economies will be high on the agenda of G20 finance officials when they meet on Feb. 26-27.

They will debate the idea of extending IMF funding and the initiative allowing the poorest countries a six-month suspension on some debt payments, as well as more comprehensive relief. There are also calls for the G20 to lead a global COVID-19 immunisation plan.

It will be the first G20 meeting since Joe Biden took over as U.S. president, so the tone may be very different from the Trump years which saw many global alliances fractured. That could be a positive shift at a time when countries are struggling to ensure economic recovery stays on course.

Graphic: Debt-to-GDP ratios of DSSI countries with sovereign bonds – https://graphics.reuters.com/AFRICA-DEBT/qzjvqmlllvx/chart.png


The British pound has become an unexpected currency market poster child for the COVID-19 recovery theme.

It has marked a major milestone in hitting $1.40, a near three-year high. But just two months ago it was mired in Brexit risks and the worst economic outcome of any major industrialised country.

Since mid-December, sterling has strengthened by around 5.5% against the dollar and by 6.5% versus the euro as Britain’s vaccination programme got off to a flying start. Hopes of an earlier end to lockdowns have lifted it 2% against the dollar in February.

Some consider the pound expensive. A Reuters poll predicted the U.S. economy would recover to pre-pandemic levels within a year but saw Britain taking twice that time.

There’s also the question of whether the Bank of England might take interest rates negative. Money markets expect it will, though not before the second half of 2022.

Graphic: GBP top FX performer – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/jbyprdmwnpe/GBP%20top%20FX%20performer.JPG


Journalists are rummaging through their pun drawers for ways to describe the deluge of special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) that have hit markets over the past year.

SPACs are essentially blank cheque companies which raise money in an initial public offering with the aim of buying a private firm and taking it public.

Already this year, 144 SPACs have raised $45.7 billion, data from SPAC Research shows, often backed by high-profile investors and celebrities.

The trend is not without bad press. Investment banks managing the deals earn fees by finding the SPAC a company to acquire — within two years. That raises fears of insufficient due-diligence.

While primarily a U.S. phenomenon, SPACs are sprouting in Europe too. Ex-UniCredit CEO Jean-Pierre Mustier, and German tycoons Christian Angermayer and Klaus Hommels have announced SPACs.

SPAC launches are plentiful but how actual acquisitions — or “deSPACing” — develop will show whether the trend lasts.

Graphic: SPAC boom – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/xegvbwlnxpq/spac.PNG

(Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed in New York and Tom Westbrook in Singapore; Karin Strohecker, Saikat Chatterjee and Abhinav Ramranayan in London; compiled by Sujata Rao; editing by Susan Fenton)



Exclusive: Most U.S. firms hit with COVID-19 safety fines aren’t paying up

By Chris Kirkham

(Reuters) – U.S. workplace safety regulators have announced more than $4 million in penalties on more than 300 employers they say put workers at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But about two-thirds of these employers aren’t paying up.

Only 108 companies had paid a total of about $897,000 in fines as of last week to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since the pandemic hit the United States last year.

Those who haven’t paid include meatpacking giants Smithfield Foods Inc and JBS USA – which had outbreaks infecting thousands of workers – as well as packaged foods company Conagra Brands Inc. All three firms have appealed the citations and say they are without merit.

More than half of employers cited for COVID-19 safety problems by federal OSHA authorities have appealed, according to a Reuters analysis of OSHA enforcement data. That compares to 8% of fined companies that appealed in the five years before the pandemic, according to OSHA data. During the appeals – which can drag on for years – companies don’t have to pay fines and aren’t required to fix problems identified by OSHA inspectors.

The payment delays follow the agency’s larger failure to hold employers accountable for unsafe conditions during the pandemic, a Reuters special report revealed in January. Reuters identified dozens of workplaces where employees complained of slipshod pandemic safety around the time of outbreaks – and regulators never inspected the facilities or, in some cases, took months to do so. (For full story, click https://reut.rs/3jC2hQf )

Further, the payment delays involve relatively small fines – averaging about $13,000 – that are not an effective deterrent, especially for large companies, five current and former OSHA officials told Reuters. Companies have so far had little to fear from regulators during the pandemic, said David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration and advised President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force during the transition.

“This is sending a message,” said Michaels, who is now a professor at George Washington University’s school of public health. “It’s just sending the wrong message.”

James Frederick, acting head of OSHA, did not directly address Reuters’ findings but said the agency is “taking a hard look at enforcement efforts related to COVID-19.”

Frederick, a Biden appointee, pointed to new guidance OSHA issued to employers on infection control in January, following a White House executive order on pandemic worker safety. The agency is exploring the development of an emergency standard that could require masks and social distancing at workplaces, a move resisted by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Reuters examined citations issued by federal OSHA but not those issued by OSHA affiliates who handle enforcement in about half of states.

Meatpacking giants JBS and Smithfield both argue that OSHA’s citations are baseless because the agency had not issued guidance to meatpacking companies on protecting workers from the virus at the time of the alleged violations in March. The companies said they did their best in the absence of clear standards and have since improved worker protections.

OSHA says all companies have a “general duty” to protect workers from hazards including infection and that both companies failed to ensure a safe workplace.


OSHA fined JBS $15,615 in September for violations at its beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, where six workers died and 290 tested positive for coronavirus through the end of July. The same month, it levied a $13,494 fine on Smithfield for failing to protect workers at its pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where nearly 1,300 workers were infected and four died as of June.

The companies’ appeals are pending before administrative judges at the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent agency that reviews contested OSHA citations.

Worker advocates and family members of those who died at the plants are frustrated by what they call a lack of accountability for companies that exposed workers.

“$15,000 is pocket change to them,” said Betty Rangel, whose father, Saul Sanchez, worked at the JBS Greeley plant and died of COVID-19 in April. “My dad’s funeral was $22,000.”

Many companies are fighting the relatively small fines because admitting violations can open up a firm to more costly workers’ compensation claims or wrongful death lawsuits, said John Ho, an attorney at law firm Cozen O’Connor who has defended corporate clients against OSHA and fought corporate appeals as a Labor Department attorney. The violations can also complicate companies’ efforts to secure government contracts.

“That’s going to strike your bottom line, in a lot of cases, very significantly,” said Ho, who is not involved in the cases described in this article.

Kim Cordova, president of the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union representing JBS workers, said the long appeals and small fines create “a culture where people won’t speak up.”

“Workers throw up their hands and think there’s nothing they can do,” Cordova said.

OSHA’s directives for JBS to address workplaces hazards are on hold during the appeal. OSHA in September ordered JBS to enforce social distancing, to screen employees for symptoms and to work with local government officials on contact tracing to identify exposed workers.

In a statement, JBS said its workplace safety measures provide more protection than what OSHA has required.

In recent months, COVID-19 cases started climbing again at the JBS Greeley facility, with nearly 100 infections identified since mid-November, according to state outbreak data.

Anthony Martinez, a meat cutter at the plant, said he and other employees work so closely together that he “can smell the guy’s breath next to me” through their masks.


OSHA has cited hospitals and other medical facilities run by Hackensack Meridian Health 15 times since September, levying more than $250,000 in fines for problems including an alleged lack of protective gear and a failure to ensure masks fit properly on nurses working with COVID-19 patients.

OSHA required the New Jersey facilities to document how they fixed the protective gear problems. But the company is appealing all of the citations, leaving workers facing the same unsafe conditions, said Debbie White, president of the union representing healthcare workers at several of the firm’s facilities.

“Clearly, they are not working to improve the safety of their working conditions,” said White, of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union.

Hackensack Meridian Health said in a written statement that no corrective action is needed because worker safety was never compromised. The company said it has ample supplies of protective gear and properly trains staff on mask-wearing.

In November, after the company appealed many citations, workers at several Hackensack Meridian hospitals started noticing that managers were giving nurses what appeared to be low-quality N95 masks, without the proper labeling. Kendra McCann, a registered nurse at Hackensack Meridian’s Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said staff couldn’t get a protective seal around their faces. Management dismissed their concerns, she said.

“They get fined, and they just continue on,” McCann said.

A few weeks after the ​managers provided allegedly defective masks, there was a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases among staff, according to the union, which has filed a complaint with OSHA alleging the masks are known counterfeits.

Hackensack Meridian said it is investigating staff concerns about the masks.


Only about a third of companies have paid their pandemic-related OSHA fines – and more than 80% of those who did pay saw their fines reduced in settlements with the agency. A Reuters review of OSHA’s violations data shows those reduced COVID-19 fines dropped an average of 46%, to $7,411, from an initial average of $13,760.

Among the firms that have negotiated lower penalties are the owners of the Andover Subacute & Rehabilitation nursing homes in New Jersey. Andover made national headlines in April when local police found 17 bodies stored in a makeshift morgue at one of the facilities following a COVID-19 outbreak. The New Jersey Attorney General is investigating Andover, along with other nursing homes that had a high number of COVID-related deaths and a poor track record in health inspections.

Representatives of the nursing facilities’ owner, Alliance Healthcare, did not respond to requests for comment.

OSHA initially assessed Andover fines of $22,555 and $16,504 in October for failing to protect staff. But the agency reduced the fines to $17,000 and $13,000, respectively, after a settlement.

By comparison, another agency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, assessed a much larger fine – $220,000 – after its inspection of one of the Andover facilities found inadequate staff training and poor infection-control practices.

(Reporting by Chris Kirkham; additional reporting by Benjamin Lesser; editing by Vanessa O’Connell and Brian Thevenot)






Learning in a pandemic: An online education executive shares tips

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – In the darkest moments of the past year, Stephanie Dua, co-founder and president of HOMER, a New York City-based online learning program, turned to early lessons on hard work and optimism she learned on her father’s almond and walnut farm.

From about age 4, Dua worked as a “nutter” on the farm in Waterford, California, collecting nuts after a machine had shaken them from the trees.

“You always knew nutters because your fingers would turn black from all the nuts’ skins that you were picking,” said Dua, 50, who got paid 5 cents a bucket.

“I learned so much about hard work, problem-solving and how you have to keep doing it until it gets done,” said Dua, who now lives in the Coconut Grove, Florida, with her husband and three daughters, ages 11 to 16. “Even if things are unsettled or unstructured, there’s always a path forward.”

To assist educators and families affected by school shutdowns, HOMER gave educators free access to its programs and pivoted to offer forums and suggestions for parents suddenly needing advice on home-schooling their children.

Dua talked to Reuters about learning through a pandemic. Edited excerpts below.

Q. How has your business changed in the past year?

A. When COVID-19 and home-schooling started, we realized we’ve been working on this for 10 to 15 years. It’s my life’s work to help give a quality education to everyone, regardless of ZIP code.

In the first few weeks of March, we launched an “Ask the Expert” series that our vice president of child and family development ran. We created an activity center to offer high-quality activities parents could do with children that were easy, like using items or ingredients in the kitchen to reinforce simple math concepts like counting.

Q. What strategies for educating and engaging your daughters have worked well?

A. We really focused on some back-to-basics, like baking and gardening.

Pinterest is an amazing source of activities. For example, with gardening, my Pinterest showed us how to make an earth bed. And my kids did the research to figure out what the best one is for this climate. They developed a flower and herb bed that we tended to all through spring and summer.

Q. What’s an important lesson you try to teach your children?

A. A sense of agency – they belong to and are part of a community, making sure that they have values that go beyond skills and knowledge.

My 16-year-old daughter, Anya, is now a thought leader in her own right – she founded Gen Z Identity Lab, a space for the Gen Z generation to discuss identity in a non-divisive way. And during COVID, my youngest daughter, Isla, co-founded a movement, Miami Strong. She was making masks and delivering them to those in need.

Q. What advice do you have for parents trying to teach their kids at home right now?

A. Do double duty. If you’re cooking, think about how you can make a math lesson out of it. If you’re taking a walk, think about how you can take the opportunity to listen and hear what’s going on with your child.

We’re all so busy. We’re time-starved. Take what you’re doing anyway and make that a great experience for your family.

Q. What is your biggest work-life challenge?

A. Not letting my own fears and anxieties affect my family. During the early days of COVID, we didn’t know what to expect. My husband and I had a conversation where we said, even if we are feeling anxious about health issues, the family, the economy – we can’t bring that into our children’s lives.

Q. What has been the silver lining to the past year?

A. My husband and daughter got COVID four days before Christmas. We decided nobody was allowed to come out of their rooms.

I was the nurse, so I had to bring a tray from room to room and drop off drinks and food and Tylenol. Fortunately, everyone was OK but it was very scary.

I really found an outpouring of love and support around us – people would drop off meals at the door, games that the kids could play.

We’re new to Miami. We’ve been here just two years. This was a moment of really getting to know our neighbors better. It’s brought friends and family closer to us, too.

(Reporting by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan; Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)


‘Roaring Kitty,’ MassMutual hit with lawsuit ahead of GameStop hearing

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The social media persona “Roaring Kitty”, who became a key player in last month’s frenzied rally in shares of GameStop Corp, is facing a lawsuit alleging he violated securities laws and caused “huge losses” for investors, just a day before he is set to testify before U.S. lawmakers.

Keith Gill, known as Roaring Kitty on YouTube and DeepF***ingValue on Reddit forums, allegedly hid his sophisticated financial training and duped retail traders into buying inflated stocks, according to a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Massachusetts on Tuesday.

Gill is scheduled to testify on Thursday in Congress about the so-called “Reddit rally,” which was hailed as a victory of the little guys against Wall Street hedge funds betting against GameStop and other struggling businesses. The lawsuit holds that Gill “incited” the rally.

Gill downplayed his impact and rebutted claims he violated any laws, noting in prepared congressional testimony published on Wednesday that he used publicly available information to determine GameStop was undervalued. It was a view he shared with a “tiny” following on social media ahead of January’s events, he said.

“The idea that I used social media to promote GameStop stock to unwitting investors is preposterous,” Gill said in the testimony. “I was abundantly clear that my channel was for educational purposes only, and that my aggressive style of investing was unlikely to be suitable for most folks checking out the channel.”

The lawsuit by Christian Iovin, a Washington state resident who purchased GameStop stock options, also names as defendants Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co and its subsidiary MML Investors Services LLC, which employed Gill until Jan. 28.

MassMutual was obligated to supervise his activities as a registered broker, according to the lawsuit. The firm declined to comment.

MassMutual told Massachusetts regulators it was unaware of Gill’s outside activities.

Gill allegedly purchased GameStop stock for $5 and then used social media to drive shares from around $20 in early January to more than $400 in just two weeks, violating securities laws against manipulating the market, according to the lawsuit.

The stock closed down 7.2% at $45.94 on Wednesday.

Gill remains bullish on GameStop’s turnaround, describing it as “stunning” that the market continues to undervalue the firm, according to his prepared remarks.

“In short, I like the stock,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Chris Prentice in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis)