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News brief: mask mandate ruling, student loan help, French presidential runoff

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What happens now that a federal mask mandate is no more?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It took just hours after a court ruling for big airlines, Amtrak and public transportation systems all over the country to drop their mask mandates. What we don't know is how long that lasts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reviewing whether it believes public health demands a mandate. If the CDC says it does, the Justice Department says it will appeal.

INSKEEP: This affects people traveling or making travel plans right now. So let's talk it over with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who travels a little bit herself. Hey there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How will this unfold?

KEITH: Well, it isn't clear how long this CDC review will take. But they had previously asked for two weeks. And in the meantime, the agency is encouraging people to voluntarily keep wearing masks on buses, planes and trains. Though, we know not everyone is doing that. It's notable here that the Justice Department isn't immediately appealing but is instead waiting for the CDC to be sure that the public health evidence really supports the need for this mask mandate to continue. And that's because there is a very real concern that if the administration were to lose this on appeal in a circuit where there are a lot of judges appointed by Republican presidents, that could set a legal precedent that would hamstring the CDC in the future. So preserving the CDC's legal right to act in a public health crisis is the main goal here and is why they're moving with caution. Before the Justice Department decision was announced yesterday, the president himself was asked whether people should continue wearing masks on planes. And he said, quote, "that's up to them," which technically, right now, it is up to them.

INSKEEP: Just so I know, the White House has control of one very big airplane. Is Air Force One still got a mask requirement so far as you know?

KEITH: It does, indeed. They required masks yesterday for his trip to New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: OK. So on other planes, people took off the masks. There were videos of people celebrating - woo-hoo. But does that reflect public opinion?

KEITH: Well, like everything with this pandemic, it's polarized. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll out earlier this month showed 51% of people - so a narrow majority - thought that the mask mandate should be allowed to expire. Forty-eight percent said that it should continue. But as you might guess, Democrats overwhelmingly favor keeping the mandate, while Republicans overwhelmingly oppose it. And this makes the politics for the White House sort of a no-win situation, as they've been trying to move to the next phase of the pandemic, as they call it, a phase where society figures out how to live with the virus. President Biden has been taking heat from liberals who are concerned that he's putting politics ahead of public health. But the administration doesn't get any credit here from independents or conservatives for lifting the mandate because that came from a judicial ruling.

INSKEEP: I guess there's also just the problem of going back - if this mandate were to be restored somehow through the court process, whether people would ever comply at all, having stopped.

KEITH: You know, the mask requirement had been hanging on by a thread, with many passengers on public transportation barely complying - think thin cloth mask around the chin. This is just the latest example of the pandemic moving into a phase where community sacrifice in the name of public health is being replaced by individual choices, people having to proactively choose themselves to wear a mask to protect themselves. Zeke Emanuel is a professor of health care management who is in regular touch with the White House.

ZEKE EMANUEL: It is a problematic time because it does appear that two years is the sort of limit of people's willingness to impose burdens on themselves for public health measures. So I think we've obviously hit that wall.

KEITH: He's really discouraged by that and worried about vulnerable people who have to travel on public transportation, for instance. But it's really hard to see a scenario where universal masking returns now that all of these mask mandates have melted away so quickly.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The U.S. government says it will help millions of student loan borrowers.

FADEL: These are people who were already supposed to be getting help and it didn't work out. Lawsuits, complaints and an NPR investigation revealed problems in a program that ties student loan repayment to a person's income. Some people were supposed to receive credit toward their loans and eventual cancellation. Now the Department of Education promises they'll really get it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner exposed some of the problems and joins us once again. Cory, good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are the programs supposed to work?

TURNER: So these IDR plans were supposed to make sure borrowers can afford their monthly payments by tying them to income and also to family size. And so folks who don't earn a lot can actually have a $0 qualifying monthly payment. So IDR came with this big promise to - this was the other big thing about this program that attracted a lot of people. After 20 to 25 years, The federal government said it would erase whatever debts were left. But over the years, it's become pretty clear that IDR is a mess. Borrowers often ended up in costly, long-term forbearances instead of IDR, which was the fault of both loan servicers and the Education Department. NPR also revealed a host of other really serious problems. Some servicers weren't tracking borrowers' progress toward loan forgiveness. People making those $0 payments might not have been getting credit toward loan forgiveness. And overall, the record-keeping in the program was pretty awful.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand - $0 payment means you put in no money, but you get credit as if you did because you have low income right now, that's what that is?

TURNER: Yeah. And you get credit towards loan forgiveness after 20 to 25 years. It's considered a qualifying payment.

INSKEEP: OK. So it was supposed to be. That wasn't working. So what is the Education Department doing differently?

TURNER: Yeah. So first, for folks who spent more than 12 months straight or more than 36 months total in one of these forbearances, that time is now going to count toward loan forgiveness. The department estimates at least 3.5 million borrowers are going to get at least three years of new credit through that fix alone. It's also saying that any months in which borrowers made payments are going to count toward IDR regardless of the repayment plan they were in. The department even says it's going to start tracking borrowers' progress toward forgiveness itself instead of just leaving it up to the servicers. In all, the department says these changes should help more than 40,000 borrowers become immediately eligible for debt cancellation, and that it's going to bring millions more closer to eventual debt cancellation.

INSKEEP: Wow.

TURNER: I spoke with Persis Yu, who has done a lot to call attention to IDR's failure. She's now at the Student Borrower Protection Center.

PERSIS YU: I am concerned that this fix actually reaches all of the borrowers. But certainly, it has the potential to really be huge for remedying many of the problems that has plagued IDR over the last several decades.

INSKEEP: Cory, I'm just thinking if there are millions of people potentially affected, some of them are listening now. What do they need to do?

TURNER: Yeah. So for most borrowers, nothing. The department says it will review and update their records automatically over several months. But this is important, Steve. It's not going to be able to make these changes until the fall. And that's because the department's antiquated internal data system actually needs an upgrade first. So there is one category of borrowers, at least, who can do something. For folks who are put into forbearance in short term, so not enough time to qualify technically, they can request an account review by filing a complaint with the ombudsman at the offices for federal student aid. But everyone else, don't call your loan servicer. Just be patient.

INSKEEP: Cory, thanks for your reporting.

TURNER: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cory Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The presidential election in France is in its final days.

FADEL: It's a runoff between the top two contenders, the same two as last time. President Emmanuel Macron attends a televised debate against his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen. If you believe the polls, Macron is a little ahead.

INSKEEP: NPR international correspondent Eleanor Beardsley will be watching the debate. Hey there, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's at stake when these two candidates get together?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this debate tonight is crucial for Le Pen, you know? Last time around, Macron clobbered her. He was smooth. He seemed to have a mastery of every subject. She didn't seem to have her own plan or know the issues. She just attacked him. So let's have a listen to that.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: She lost three points after that debate. So this week, she's cleared her schedule to prepare. The media say she's in a secret location holding mock debates with her team. She needs to look stateswoman-like and have a program. On the other hand, Macron needs to look likeable, not aloof and arrogant. He will also make Le Pen talk about the war in Ukraine to show off his international bona fides and also to expose her lack of international experience. And she's completely avoided talking about this war because in the past, she's been an admirer and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her party even got a loan from a Russian bank. So everyone is going to be tuning in tonight.

INSKEEP: Well, help me figure that out because Le Pen lost big in the last election. And now she has this especially awkward moment to be someone with a connection to Russia and Vladimir Putin, given the invasion of Ukraine. How would it be that she's much closer this time to Macron?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it's several things, Steve. Macron is no longer seen as this wunderkind, this political maverick who came in to save France from its sterile left-right divide. You know, five years ago, he cast himself as neither left nor right. And he got votes from across the political spectrum. Now he's definitely seen as right. He has a record and many people don't like it. He's perceived by many working-class voters as arrogant, elitist and a president of the rich, and as a cutthroat global capitalist who's out for big corporations and not the little guy. You remember that working poor yellow vest movement...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BEARDSLEY: ...That gathered every weekend for more than a year? Well, they're still out there, and they hate Macron. On top of that, he's hardly campaigned. He acted like he had no time for it. Marine Le Pen has been a great candidate. Since last fall, she's been out in France campaigning on one thing, purchasing power. She never swayed. And that's French voters' No. 1 concern.

INSKEEP: Is her party any different, though, than the far, far right party of the past?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, it's still very nationalist. It's about French sovereignty against immigration. But in many ways, it has changed. For example, the party does not advocate leaving the European Union anymore. And Marine Le Pen herself has cast herself as this protector of the working-class French person, whatever their race or religion. She said she loves when people refer to her as the mother of the nation. She's a total change from her father, who was seen as a racist and an anti-Semite. I spoke with Nonna Mayer, who's an expert on the far right. And she says Le Pen has managed to detoxify the party over the last decade with this message.

NONNA MAYER: We are not anti-Semitic. We are not racist. We are defending France. We are defending the rights of women, of gays, of Jews against the terrible threat that is radical Islam.

BEARDSLEY: And you know what? It's worked. You go to her rallies, you do not see the same crowds as you saw 10 years ago.

INSKEEP: Eleanor, thanks so much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, in Paris, where the French presidential candidates debate today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.