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News Brief: Florida Condo Search, Biden And Police, U.K.'s COVID Restrictions

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Surfside, wind, rain and lightning have slowed but not stopped the search of the Champlain Towers South condo.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As of this morning, 28 bodies have been recovered; 117 people are still unaccounted for. Their families have now been waiting almost two weeks. The harsh weather in the region is from Tropical Storm Elsa closing in on Florida's west coast. The state is also under a state of emergency.

KING: NPR's Adrian Florido is in Surfside today. Good morning, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What has this storm meant for the search?

FLORIDO: Well, because of the weather, rescuers have had to stop the search periodically over the last day or so, especially when there's lightning. But yesterday, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said that each time that's happened, they've gotten back out there as soon as it is safe.

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DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: For 12 days, fire, smoke and now wind and torrential rain - they are continuing the mission and the search of the collapsed area. They've worked under this great difficulty because that's how much they want to be out there searching.

FLORIDO: Still, rescue workers have found no survivors. They did pull four more bodies out of the rubble yesterday, though. The mayor said their search has been helped a lot by the demolition of the part of the building that did not collapse. So now rescuers can search areas of that big debris pile that were previously too dangerous to dig into because they were helping to hold the building up.

KING: And in the meantime, it's been almost two weeks, and families are still waiting. How are people handling this?

FLORIDO: To find out a little bit about this, I went to visit Rabbi Sholom Lipskar at The Shul of Surfside. He leads that synagogue, which is just a short walk from the Champlain Towers. And many of that synagogue's members lived in that collapsed building and were victims.

SHOLOM LIPSKAR: You know, this is our own backyard. Everybody in our community knew somebody in that building. So it's a traumatic experience for everyone, even those who are not direct family members.

FLORIDO: He said that a source of great trauma for this community is not knowing if all the bodies will be found. The need to grieve in the presence of the remains of your loved one is such a basic human need. And so not knowing if you will have that body - he said that that is really hurting a lot.

KING: And so how - what does he tell families who have lost someone who are still waiting?

FLORIDO: Well, the rabbi told me that he doesn't even try to console those families that are still waiting because right now, they're in this painful moment, unable to mourn and hoping really against hope that their loved one is still alive. So right now, he says the only thing he can really offer them is just kindness.

LIPSKAR: Because there's nothing else that works under these circumstances - unadulterated, unquestionable kindness. If you want a Monster drink, we're going to get it for you. A blanket, a pillow, whatever you need we're going to get for you so that you put their minds at ease of all material things at this moment.

FLORIDO: And he says that that kindness really helps them.

KING: I'm sure it does. And so what will happen at the site today?

FLORIDO: Well, today, the search will continue. You know, rescue workers will be moving chunks of debris bit by bit, carefully, methodically, because despite the fact that it has been almost two weeks, this is still officially a rescue operation.

KING: OK. NPR's Adrian Florido in Surfside, Fla. Thank you, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Noel.

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KING: We first started hearing loud and national calls for police reform after a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of last year.

FADEL: But progress on the issue has been slow. President Biden is walking a thin line. Though it's nowhere near where it was as recently as the '90s, violent crime is rising in many cities. At the same time, Biden is trying to get a police reform bill passed. And the president has undergone something of a change. For years, Biden was a loyal ally to the police. He wrote a 1994 crime bill with the help of police groups. But today, he's also calling for more accountability among police.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid is following this story. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What is the president's relationship with the police right now?

KHALID: Well, the president is trying to balance calls from activists for a major overhaul of policing with concerns about law and order amid a crime wave. The president himself has a long personal relationship with police dating back, as you said, to this 1994 crime bill. The question is whether those old ties will help him in this moment. Jim Pasco with the Fraternal Order of Police told me that Biden has had something of an evolution.

JIM PASCO: From the '90s, which was probably the point at which the relationship was its closest - his move to the left in his thinking. And that colors his approach to pretty much all things law enforcement.

KHALID: And, you know, at the same time, he says, law enforcement has also shifted to the right.

KING: OK, so if Biden is moving left and law enforcement is moving right, what's the communication like? Is Biden talking to police groups?

KHALID: Well, he recently gave this speech at the White House about the surge of violent crime. And he did invite the Baton Rouge police chief to this meeting at the White House. But police groups tell me they have not had one-on-one meetings with the president. They have had an open line of communication and multiple candid conversations, they say, with senior White House officials or the attorney general but not the president himself. And that is a contrast to former President Trump. You know, the Sheriffs' Association told me that just a couple weeks after Trump was inaugurated, they were invited to the White House. And, you know, I will say, though, some law enforcement groups, while they may not have taken that temp check officially with the president - they are taking it with senior advisers like Cedric Richmond.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: If the question is, do they have access? - the question is, they do because it's important to us to make sure that we're keeping families safe and making sure that they know that we're concerned about unconstitutional policing and excessive force in this country. And we relate that to them.

KING: Lawmakers in Congress have spent months trying to negotiate a police reform bill, and nothing yet. Where does that stand?

KHALID: Well, last month, negotiators said they had reached an agreement on a framework. Not a lot of details yet there, but there are some changes being discussed that some Democrats want, like eliminating qualified immunity. And some police groups essentially tell me that those are nonstarters for them. Jonathan Thompson with the Sheriffs' Association told me that law enforcement is in this untenable situation right now, and he's not sure there's going to be a middle ground to land on. During the campaign, the president spoke about finding a solution to police reform if he could just get all of the stakeholders in the same room, the civil rights activists, the police unions. You know, but now he's also dealing with some rising crime in the country. And I do think there is a sense that in order to have the political space to tackle reform, the administration first needs to get violent crime under control.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you, Asma.

KHALID: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. England is getting ready to lift nearly all of its COVID-19 restrictions in just about two weeks.

FADEL: And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says it's time to return to near normal and let people police themselves.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will change the basic tools that we have used to control human behavior, will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.

FADEL: But Johnson is planning to open up at a time when cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise, drawing criticism from unions and opposition politicians.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London covering this one. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel. Good morning.

KING: So the virus is spreading. The delta variant is making everybody very nervous. What is Boris Johnson's logic here?

LANGFITT: Noel, you know, even he admits that the pandemic isn't over. But his argument is basically there's a heavy vaccination rate here in the United Kingdom, and he says it has largely broken the link between the disease and hospitalization and large number of deaths. And so far, I mean, at the moment, the numbers would seem to support that. We're at about 27,000 cases a day. And deaths are averaging about 18 a day. Now, if you compare that to, say, the height in January, in one day, you had over 1,800 deaths in this country. Now, to be clear, this is a trade-off between more cases and certainly at least some more deaths and fully reopening the economy and society here.

KING: Given Britain's very divisive political climate, are other political leaders criticizing Johnson? What are they saying?

JOHNSON: There is criticism, as you would expect. I mean, one of the big concerns is that Johnson wants to make mask wearing voluntary. Now, there's one union here that represents public transport workers, called this yesterday an act of gross negligence and said it's certain to lead to more infections. Keir Starmer - he's the leader of the opposition Labour Party - he called the plan reckless.

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KEIR STARMER: The public know the infection rate is going up. And they're bound to pinch themselves and say, why on earth, then, are you throwing off all protections at the same time? Of course, we want to open up. But to throw all protections at the same time is reckless.

LANGFITT: And I should mention, I mean, I ride the tube these days. I am working in London to some degree. And Sadiq Khan - he's the mayor of London - he says he still would like to see, definitely wants masks mandatory on the tube, buses and trains around the capital.

KING: OK, that's interesting. And then public health officials - what are they saying? Are they speaking with one voice? Do they have ideas about this plan?

LANGFITT: They do. I mean, there's an expectation that by the time Johnson wants to lift these restrictions - we're talking about two weeks from now, July 19 - the country actually could probably be seeing 50,000 new cases a day.

KING: Oh.

LANGFITT: Yeah. And so you can imagine how this may be a tough sell at the time. Now, speaking on the BBC this morning, Neil Ferguson - he's an epidemiologist at Imperial College London. He called Johnson's move - he framed it as a slight gamble.

NEIL FERGUSON: And this is the the million-dollar question. If we get very high numbers of cases a day - 150,000, 200,000 - it still could cause some pressure to the health system and, of course, some, you know, public health burden.

LANGFITT: And what Ferguson is talking about there is definitely talking about more deaths. I should add these plans are not certain. Johnson is still watching the situation and the numbers. He says he's going to make a final decision next Monday. And this will only apply to England because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - they have their own COVID policies, not unlike the states in the US.

KING: Ah, OK. NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thank you, Frank, for your reporting.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.