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Before You Use Our GPS Travel Data To Formulate Coronavirus Policy, Make Sure You Understand the Data

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Companies are using aggregated GPS location data to track trends on how well citizens are changing their habits in response to COVID-19. While this information might be helpful, it has also prompted some unsettling and maybe misguided power plays.

It started in mid-March, when Unacast, a company that tracks and analyzes location data from people's phones, put together what a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" to attempt to calculate how successfully the citizens of each state are changing their travel habits.

Calling it a "Social Distancing Scoreboard" is itself a mistake. Social distancing is supposed to refer to the amount of physical space between individuals. But this scoreboard initially graded states on the basis of the distance people were traveling. Ostensibly this was an attempt to see if people were making fewer non-essential trips. That may be valuable data, but it's not what "social distancing" means.

It got worse when they started grading states. The only state to get an F was (and still is) Wyoming, which currently has 153 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no deaths. New York state, now the world's epicenter in coronavirus infections and deaths, gets an A-. (The death toll in New York City alone has topped 1,500.) The reason for the difference should be obvious. Wyoming is a profoundly rural state. Of course its residents won't reduce their travel distances as much as someone in a big city. Sweetwater County, the physically largest county in Wyoming, has a population density of 4.2 people per square mile. New York City has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile.

And why should it matter that someone in Wyoming travels further to buy necessities? The goal is supposed to be reducing exposure within the population. People who live in high-density areas are going to have to take harsher measures than those who do not. I live in Los Angeles, and I have not traveled more than a mile from my apartment since the second week of March. But within that distance is a grocery store, and dozens of nearby restaurants are begging me to get their food delivered. I suspect the dynamics are different in Rock Springs, Wyoming, population 23,000.

Unacast subsequently upgraded its methodology to factor in whether a trip is "essential" or "non-essential." Its definition of "non-essential" venues includes consumer electronics stores, office supply stores, toy stores, and movie theaters. But it also includes restaurants and hotels, which in some contexts might be very essential.

Unacast seems aware that rural environments are going to be different, and the company's explanation of its methodology makes it clear that this data maps people's behavior, not the path of COVID-19's spread. They hope, they explain, to "provide direct aggregated feedback to policy makers and community leaders on how well their social distancing measures are being adopted by the general public, and if more severe restrictions do lead to a reduction in the number of reported cases of COVID-19."

Because we are in the grip of "We have to do something, anything, to stop the spread of coronavirus," leaders are turning to this aggregated data to justify "more severe restrictions." Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee just used aggregated travel data to justify stricter "stay at home" orders, even though Unacast's data showed about a 45 percent decline in travel distance and "non-essential visits" even before his order.

In Vermont, the state has ordered big-box stores to stop selling items they deem "non-essential" within their stores and to cordon them off from shoppers. (Delivery and curbside purchases are still permitted.) Of course, just because the government says these goods and products are not essential, doesn't make it true. Garden goods have been deemed non-essential, which doesn't seem the right message for a time when people are supposed to be holed up at home with plenty of food.

Now Google is offering aggregated reports showing travel data from phone users who have turned on their location history settings. The information is being aggregated anonymously so that nobody's privacy will be violated. But nevertheless, this data can be abused. Wyoming is showing a decline in travel to most places but an increase in visits to parks. That tells you nothing about whether people are social distancing in those parks. But as we've already seen in the United Kingdom, police are quite capable of confusing "traveling to parks to get exercise" with "not engaging in social distancing." On Thursday, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested a paddleboarder off the coast of Malibu for violating a stay-at-home order. Bringing the man to the sheriff's station in Calabasas for processing before releasing him exposed him to a much greater risk of COVID-19 infection than if they had just left him alone.

Google warns against using its data to compare regions that are different from each other. Whether officials will pay attention to that warning remains to be seen.

Aggregated trend data can be useful, but that usefulness depends on reasonable, responsible decision-making. Unfortunately, when leaders haven't always grasped even how COVID-19 is transmitted—neither Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp nor New York Mayor Bill de Blasio seem to have understood until this week that asymptomatic people can spread the virus—there's reason to doubt that we'll see smart decisions.



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freeAgent
1 day ago
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Los Angeles, CA
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As the coronavirus spreads in Ecuador, bodies are being left on streets

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Coronavirus in Ecuador: Bodies on the streets



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freeAgent
2 days ago
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Los Angeles, CA
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Coronavirus spreads in Los Angeles' homeless community

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Coronavirus in L.A. homeless community spreads, but so far no signs of clustering



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freeAgent
2 days ago
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Los Angeles, CA
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Your Recyclables Are Going to the Dump

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Baltimore County residents have had their perceptions about recycling shattered. In early February, news broke that for the last seven years, the county has been trashing the glass it collects as part of the county recycling program.

"There are numerous issues with glass recycling, including increased presence of shredded paper in recycling streams which contaminates materials and is difficult to separate from broken glass fragments, in addition to other limitations on providing quality material," a county spokesperson told The Baltimore Sun.

Glass recycling reportedly stopped in 2013, the same year the county opened a $23 million single-stream recycling facility, according to the Sun. Single-stream recycling refers to the practice of letting people put all their recyclables into one bin, then sorting it at processing facilities. It's more convenient for consumers than asking them to place their papers, plastics, and glass items in separate curbside containers.

Baltimore County fully adopted single-streaming by October 2010, part of a growing trend among municipalities trying to boost recycling rates. A study from the American Forest & Paper Association found that the population covered by a single-stream recycling service that included glass grew from 22 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2014. The thinking was that if you make recycling easier, more people will do it.

The trouble is that placing everything in the same bin increases the chances of contamination. Non-compatible materials get mixed together or coated with food waste. So a good deal of the glass isn't pure enough to ground down and ship to glass manufacturers. Chemical & Engineering News notes that only 40 percent of glass collected by single-stream services ends up being recycled into new products, compared to 90 percent of glass in multi-stream collection systems.

The cost of transporting heavy glass from recycling centers to glass manufacturers is also often prohibitively high, making the production of new, nonrecycled glass more economical.

Regardless of the material in question, the American recycling industry has been going through a crisis over the last several years. Rising rates of contamination and the effective closure of a major export market in China, which stopped accepting most American plastics in 2018, have left material processing facilities with no willing buyers. Many of the recyclables that are collected end up in landfills or incinerators.

That's exactly what's been happening to Baltimore County's glass. Yet county officials are still encouraging residents to recycle the stuff, fearful that people will fall out of the recycling habit. Ritual is apparently more important than reuse.



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freeAgent
2 days ago
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I have always wondered if it's worthwhile at all to recycle something like a plastic peanut butter container. It's nearly impossible to actually get all the peanut butter out of the container. I assume this means they are just tossing things like this back in the trash. I'm also curious about boxes that have tape and labels/adhesive (from shipping) on them.
Los Angeles, CA
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The FDA Is Making It Much, Much Harder for Distilleries To Produce Hand Sanitizer

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, hand sanitizer has become an incredibly scarce resource. It's practically impossible to find any at a grocery or drug store, or to order it online. But in Washington, D.C., at least, anyone who wants a bottle can get one. All you have to do is buy a bottle of booze. 

That's what I did yesterday when I ordered delivery of a pre-bottled cocktail—the delicious rye-apple brand blend, the American Trilogy—from Restorative Republic, a local distiller that makes bourbon, vodka, rye, and apple brandy. A few hours later, the bottle was delivered to my front gate—along with a smaller bottle labeled "hand cleaner." 

Local distilleries like Restorative Republic and rum-maker Cotton & Reed are making artisanal hand cleaner, the primary ingredient in which is high-proof alcohol. And anyone who buys a bottle of their booze also gets a small bottle of what you might call hipster Purell. They're not alone. Distilleries across the country have begun producing hand cleaners, and many more have said they'd like to, with more than 500 producers reportedly indicating they'd like to convert some of their production. 

But there's a problem: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently won't let them do so in an efficient way. 

"We are ready willing and able to produce massive amounts of hand sanitizer," says Matt Dogali, the President and CEO of the American Distilled Spirits Alliance. The FDA, along with the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, he says, "have guidance documents about how we make our hand sanitizer." And that guidance requires a denaturant—an additive meant to make the alcohol unpalatable if, say, a child tried to drink it. 

But the denaturant the FDA currently requires would temporarily wreck their production lines. "We make consumable alcohol products," he says. "And if we introduce a denaturant into our lines, it renders them useless for future alcohol production barring extreme cleaning measures, because we cannot have any remnant of the denaturant in our lines, and then sell a consumable product." Deep cleaning could take down lines, which in many distilleries run either continuously or the majority of every day, for days if not longer, costing distilleries precious time and money in the process. 

Some distilleries, he said, initially began producing sanitizer with ethanol, which is used to produce consumable alcohol, and food-safe ingredients. But the FDA released follow-up guidance saying those food-safe formulas were only allowable with types of alcohol that most liquor producers don't use. The March guidance document says that, given the emergency circumstances surrounding the spread of COVID-19, the FDA "does not intend to take action" against alcohol producers who make alcohol for hand sanitizer—so long as a lengthy list of requirements is met. 

The FDA's requirements have nothing to do with making hand sanitizer work; hand sanitizer doesn't require a denaturant to be effective at killing germs. In fact, the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidelines for producing it don't include a denaturant. 

Those guidelines are what some distilleries, like Republic Restoratives, have reportedly followed—and why they are labeling it "hand cleaner" instead of sanitizer. "I don't really know what the FDA thinks about things like this," owner Pia Carusone told Washingtonian in March. Regulations governing the production of sanitizer are also why they can't sell it. 

Nor are the FDA's approved denaturing agents the only options. Dogai says there are other substances that could be added that would ward off drinking without affecting production lines. And he'd like to see direct sales to medical facilities approved as well. 

Distillers, Dogai says, have proposed to the FDA that "they should allow us to make a commercial-grade hand sanitizer, that is, a hand sanitizer that would never end up for public sale." It would never reach store shelves to which children might have access, and that way, it wouldn't need to be denatured to discourage consumption. The goal, he says, would be to "put our products in the hands of professionals. That allows conventional labs to restock grocery stores." 

"If we can alleviate the demands of the hospitals and first responders," he says, then other producers can restock the grocery stores. 

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), another industry group, has set up a portal for distillers hoping to produce sanitizer. Among other things, producing sanitizer allows "craft distilleries to keep their stills going, maintain their employees and stay afloat during this crisis," said CEO Chris Swonger, in a statement.

Congress has already taken some action to make it easier for distillers to produce sanitizer by eliminating a tax on alcohol production if it's used for hand cleaner. That tax, if it had continued, would have "basically been a stop order," Dogai says, making it prohibitively expensive to produce much sanitizer. But there's a catch: The tax break only applies to sanitizer produced according to FDA guidelines. 

Personally, I'm happy to buy liquor and cleaner as a package deal: I prefer to think of it as buying a pricey bottle of hand cleaner and getting a tasty bottle of booze for free. But that's not ideal for most people, and it means that distilleries can't produce the mass quantities necessary to keep up with unprecedented demand. 

There are about 4,000 distilleries in the U.S., and many are already making some sort of hand cleaner. But Dogai says they could be making 10 times as much if the FDA were to change its rules. "At this moment in time," he says, "the amount of hand sanitizer that we're making is smaller than it could be."



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freeAgent
2 days ago
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Los Angeles, CA
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L.A. Bureaucrats Shut Down Restaurants for Selling Groceries Without a Permit

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A few Los Angeles restaurants struggling to maintain footing amid the COVID-19 outbreak identified a clever way to generate revenue while still serving the community: Start selling groceries.

The city's public health department promptly shut them down. The reason? The small businesses don't have a "grocery permit."

"It's not really possible for a restaurant to become a grocery store," Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of Los Angeles County Public Health, said in a briefing yesterday. "You cannot just decide you want to sell groceries."

Why anyone can't do exactly that—exchange goods with those who want to purchase them—remains a mystery. Such licensing laws are typically put in place in the name of public safety, but one wonders how this decision could possibly help protect the public.

The restaurants-turned-grocery stores actually provide a rather obvious public health benefit. They are significantly less crowded than traditional grocery stores, which is convenient when considering that every major health organization has advised individuals to maintain a six-foot distance from surrounding passersby.

"Elderly people in the neighborhood really enjoy coming to Bacari PDR," Robert Kronfli, the co-owner of one such restaurant-turned-grocery store, tells Reason. Foremost, "it was a super chill shopping environment," he says, with "only one or two people in there at once." Contrast that with the major chains, which have been overwhelmed with an onslaught of patrons. "They're afraid to go to large supermarkets right now because of the lines and because of the social distancing thing."

A local health inspector shuttered Bacari on Friday morning, citing the establishment's lack of a license.

Kronfli's store offered another advantage to the local area: "We have inventory," he notes, including toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies—the very items that notoriously disappeared from shelves weeks ago when fears started to spread around COVID-19. Many patrons flocked to his business for those goods, he explains, and they also appreciated that they could touch and feel the produce without worrying as heavily about how many hands had touched it first.

Though he says that his conversation with the county health inspector "hit a brick wall," Kronfli is appealing his case to the California Restaurant Association, to Councilman Mike Bonin (D–11), and to the L.A. Department of Public Health. He's hopeful that the city will grant him the right to run his fledgling grocery business again. 

"I mean, it's COVID-19, right?" Kronfli muses. "Everyone's doing unprecedented stuff."

He's right, but the government recognizing an entrepreneur's right to sell groceries really shouldn't be all that unprecedented.



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freeAgent
4 days ago
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These people have nothing better to do?
Los Angeles, CA
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