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News brief: Russia-Ukraine tensions, Mikaela Shiffrin, California mask mandate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is what Vladimir Putin says, and then there is what Vladimir Putin does. French President Emmanuel Macron said Putin told him he doesn't want to escalate tensions with Ukraine. At the same time, six Russian warships were making their way from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and Ukraine's southern coast.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Moscow says the ships are for naval drills. Yoruk Isik is a marine consultant in Turkey who closely watches the Bosporus strait, which goes through Istanbul. Yesterday, as the first group of Russian ships were passing by Turkey's coast, he described to us what he was seeing.

YORUK ISIK: Three giant Russian landing ships pass back to back in the narrow straits of the Bosporus into the Black Sea under the cover of darkness. And these ships, every ship can carry maybe up to 20 tanks.

MARTIN: With us on the line from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Morning.

MARTIN: So these big warships come through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea, near Ukraine, and Russia says, uh, nothing to see here. Is that it?

MAYNES: The Russian government says this was a preplanned exercise, much as it's characterized - I should add - its mass drills in Belarus, where 30,000 Russian troops are now camped out to the north of Ukraine. We don't know the specifics about the mission of this landing ships, but they're in theory part of this wider demonstration of Russian naval power happening this month really everywhere - you know, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, of course, the Black Sea near Ukraine.

MARTIN: So I thought French President Emmanuel Macron also said he got some reassurances from Vladimir Putin about freezing military drills.

MAYNES: Yeah. Well, you know, again, the Kremlin says these naval exercises were preplanned. What Macron was saying following a marathon meeting at the Kremlin Monday is that he has this pledge from Putin to freeze future military drills, particularly around Ukraine. Macron also says Putin promised to bring Russian troops back from Belarus when exercises there end later this month. The problem is you fast-forward to Tuesday, and the Kremlin says, not so fast. Putin's spokesman said it was incorrect to talk about de-escalation over Ukraine and that even this Belarus pullback could happen eventually, but no date was given.

Now, Putin acknowledged some proposals offered by Macron were useful and merited further discussion, but he didn't say what they were. Putin made very clear, however, his main concern is still NATO's eastern expansion. He wants a formal ban on Ukraine's membership, in particular, an idea the West has rejected. And Macron's workaround has been to suggest new approaches to European security that Moscow might find more attractive. Macron clearly believes a key element to that is finding an end to the war in east Ukraine, where Kyiv has been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas for seven years now.

MARTIN: I mean, Ukrainians are living in this crazy tension, you know, not knowing what Putin's going to do, if an attack is going to come. And there have been so many meetings, so much diplomacy. I guess we just wait for more of that?

MAYNES: Yeah, more meetings (laughter). So the focus really is back now on the Minsk peace accords. This is the stalled diplomatic effort involving France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, the so-called Normandy quartet, to end the war in the Donbas, which could then in theory de-escalate the current tensions around the Ukrainian-Russian border. Both Zelenskyy and Putin say they support the peace accords, though with differing degrees of enthusiasm. You know, Putin likes this deal because it promotes more autonomy for the pro-Russian separatist territories. Zelenskyy isn't crazy about it, but he acknowledges that at least it holds Ukraine together. But there's a lot of daylight between Kyiv and Moscow on the deal's provisions. And they get their next shot to talk it over when the quartet gathers in Berlin tomorrow.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For Mikaela Shiffrin, the Winter Olympics are off to a disappointing start.

FADEL: The U.S. Alpine skiing star, winner of three Olympic medals, considered one of the greatest in her sport, started two races and didn't make it through the first run of either. Today at the Beijing Games, Shiffrin skied off the slalom course just seconds after she started. The quick-turning slalom is her best event. She's won more slalom races than any World Cup skier, woman or man, in history.

MARTIN: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is with us. Tom, I mean, this is so sad. Mikaela Shiffrin wanted attention from these games and not this way.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: She sure didn't. Let me tell you first what happened, Rachel. She was the seventh racer to start the first of two slalom runs, and just five seconds in, her skis slipped on a turn. She couldn't recover. She skied off the course and then went over and sat down near protective netting on the side, put her head down, and she was there for many minutes while other racers skied by. It was kind of a painful image. Talking to reporters, she was both disappointed. She said, it's a letdown of everything - letting down myself, letting down other people. And she sounded a bit defiant, too, saying, quote, "I didn't finish in the Olympics. Come on. That hurts. But in 24 hours, nobody is going to care. Well, maybe it will take a little longer," end quote. Now, she says she will try to reset and prepare for three more events, but she knows she missed the chance to win another medal in her two best races, slalom and giant slalom.

I want to add one thing here, a reminder. She wasn't the only woman racing today. And the tip of the ski helmet to Slovakia's Petra Vlhova, probably Shiffrin's main rival. They're the same age. And Vlhova has spent years finishing behind Shiffrin. Today, she won a gold medal in the slalom.

MARTIN: So is Shiffrin saying why this happened, why she had these two flameouts?

GOLDMAN: You know, she's explaining it in skiing terms. With the slalom today, she said she wanted to take a really aggressive line, meaning more straight down the hill, and that left little room for correction if there was a bobble. And there was, and she couldn't recover, and so she skied off the course. Bigger reasons, you know, Rachel - here we get into the possible mental aspect, something very familiar after what happened to gymnast Simone Biles at the Summer Olympics last year. Shiffrin, like Biles and other Olympic stars, has talked about the pressure for those Olympians who are featured on magazine covers and talked about as medal contenders. Interestingly, she said pressure wasn't the big issue today. There were nerves, but she also said, you know, she had the feeling she always has - that good skiing will be there for her.

MARTIN: There is some good news, though, today on the medal front for Team USA, right?

GOLDMAN: There is good news (laughter) - a first gold medal for the U.S. from the sport of snowboard cross. Now, over the last eight Winter Olympics, it's taken the U.S. on average 1.75 days - I did the math, Rachel - to win a first gold.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: This time it took five days. And we were wondering whether this was reflective of some troubling shift in the world order.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: And Lindsey Jacobellis restored order in the snowboard cross, where four snowboarders leave the gate at the same time, shoulder to shoulder - first one to the bottom wins. So congrats to her winning her first gold in her fifth Olympics. And at 36, she's the oldest American woman to win a Winter Olympics gold medal.

MARTIN: Ah, that's very cool. And all is well in the world.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: NPR's Tom Goldman in Beijing. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Is it time to start absorbing some risk, start living with COVID-19 and take off our masks? Some states are saying yes.

FADEL: New York is expected to announce a change to its indoor mask mandate later today. That's after a number of other states this week said they're rolling back their mandates. One of them is California, which will drop its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people next week. But LA County, as well as other parts of California, will keep their mandates in place, creating a patchwork of COVID requirements throughout the state.

MARTIN: To explain more, we are joined by Jackie Fortier, senior health reporter at member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Hey, Jackie.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why is California's mask mandate changing now?

FORTIER: Well, when omicron was cascading in early December, California health officials decided to impose a one-month indoor mask mandate for everyone age 2 and up, regardless of their vaccination status. And then in January, when case counts exploded and hospitals were again slammed as, you know, health workers tested positive, the mask mandate was extended for another month to try to prevent more people from getting infected. So now that the omicron surge is rapidly receding, state health officials decided to let the mask mandate expire. So after February 15, in many parts of the state, vaccinated Californians will no longer be required to wear a mask if they don't want to.

MARTIN: Many parts of the state - can you be more specific?

FORTIER: Yeah. Really, most of California you won't have to, including rural areas where local officials didn't impose mask mandates, as well as, you know, more conservative places like Orange County here in Southern California. But, you know, masks aren't going away completely. All unvaccinated people will be required to wear masks indoors and everyone in high-risk settings like nursing homes, hospitals and shelters. And so far, there has been no date set to lift the statewide mask mandate in K-through-12 schools.

MARTIN: But the mask mandates are going to stay in place altogether in some parts of California - LA County for one, right? What's the rationale there?

FORTIER: Right. So counties and municipalities are allowed to have stricter rules than the state. And LA County health officials say there's just too many people still getting infected. LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said essential workers will pay the price for lifting the mask mandate too early.

BARBARA FERRER: The same essential workers who, from the beginning of the pandemic, have had the most risk, the highest case rates and, unfortunately and tragically, high hospitalization and death rates. So let's not have that happen again in our rush to sort of declare victory over the pandemic.

FORTIER: Under the new criteria announced last week, masks will come off in LA County as community transmission declines - first, outdoors at schools and then, when transmission drops even lower, indoors at offices and restaurants. So that means that thousands of fans attending the Super Bowl in LA County on Sunday will need to mask up.

MARTIN: So, as Leila noted, this leaves a sort of patchwork - right? - of mask mandates around the state. So you don't wear a mask where you're from. Maybe you drive across the county line; you got to put one on. What are the larger implications of that?

FORTIER: Yeah, it's confusing for people, especially for those, like you said, who live in one county and work in another. A lot of people live in San Bernardino County because it's cheaper and then work in LA County, where they'd have to wear a mask. And then, you know, when they drive home, go out to eat in San Bernardino, they wouldn't have to wear a mask. Individual businesses can still require masks when you get it from the table. But the county mandate really provides cover for business owners who do want customers to wear masks, you know? It's easier to say, hey, it's the health department rules than to say it's our own restaurant's policy.

MARTIN: Right. Health reporter Jackie Fortier from KPCC in Los Angeles. Thank you, Jackie. We appreciate it.

FORTIER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we go, we want to let you know about another story we're watching today - a rift within the Republican Party. Senator Mitch McConnell is calling out the GOP for penalizing two House Republicans for their roles in investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Follow NPR News for more on that story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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