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Lobster prices sky high due to heavy demand, slower season

PORTLAND, Maine — Prices for Maine’s most beloved export are much higher than typical right now because of high demand and the possibility that those who catch lobsters are having a slower season.

Maine lobsters usually become less expensive over the course of the summer because of the increase in catch off the state’s coast. But this year, wholesale prices that typically fall to the $8 or $9 per pound range never fell below $10.50. And they’ve soared even higher in early fall, eclipsing recent records and causing consumers to fork over more money at the seafood counter.

Members of the industry said interest in lobster from food processing companies and international buyers is driving heavy demand for the crustaceans. Meanwhile, the fishing season might be slightly off the pace of recent years, so supply is stretched thin, they said.

“The season has been maybe a little bit below average, but the price has been pretty decent, so I think we’re going to be OK,” said Kristan Porter, a lobster fisherman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

America’s lobster industry, based mostly in Maine, goes through pricing ebbs and flows over the course of a typical year. Lobsters are typically heavily fished in summer, when they shed their shells and many reach legal size.

This year, the wholesale price is staying high in the early fall, as the average price for September was $11.52, according to business publisher Urner Barry. That was the second-highest price for any month over the past five years, and the highest for a peak-season month.

Consumers are paying in the $15 per pound range — about a third more than a year ago, and twice the price from some previous summers and early falls.

“It’s a very unusual year — and it’s far enough into the fall that I don’t see that turning around,” said John Sackton, an industry analyst and founder of SeafoodNews.com. “What lobster dealers say is they can’t get enough to supply their overseas customers.”

While the volume of lobster catch might be slightly off recent years’ pace, Maine fishermen are in the midst of an unprecedentedly productive multiyear run. Fishermen have brought more than 96 million pounds of lobster to Maine docks for 11 straight years after never coming close to that figure according to start records that go back to the 1880s.

And there’s always the possibility fishermen will catch a lot of lobsters in the autumn, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the lobster fishing group.

“Fall is certainly a significant time for lobster landings, and so far our lobstermen seem to be pretty happy with this season,” McCarron said.

Small businesses navigate ever-changing COVID-19 reality

NEW YORK — For a brief moment this summer, it seemed like small businesses might be getting a break from the relentless onslaught of the pandemic. More Americans, many of them vaccinated, flocked to restaurants and stores without needing to mask up or socially distance.

But then came a surge in cases due to the delta variant, a push for vaccine mandates and a reluctant return to more COVID-19 precautions. Now, small business owners are left trying to strike a balance between staying safe and getting back to being fully open.

Navigating ever-changing coronavirus reality comes with a number of risks, from financial hardship to offending customers to straining workers. Those challenges could intensify as winter approaches and outdoor alternatives become limited. Still, small business owners say the whiplash is worth it to keep customers and employees as safe as possible.

“Just weeks ago, small business owners hoped that a return to normalcy would help jump start our recovery,” said Jessica Johnson-Cope, Chair of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices National Leadership Council and owner of a small business herself, Johnson Security Bureau in New York.

New York City ordered a vaccine mandate for customers in August. For Dan Rowe, CEO of Fransmart, which runs the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, the mandate has been a financial burden, and a headache. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop first opened in May and has six staffers. It’s pandemic-friendly format is contactless and automated.

“It was engineered to be a restaurant with less employees,” Rowe said. Glass separates the kitchen and staff from customers, who order food from an app. When the kitchen is finished making the food, it’s placed an automat-style window, so workers don’t come into contact with customers.

“We’ve engineered this great low labor restaurant, and the government is making us go backward,” he said.

Rowe had to hire another staffer to check vaccine cards at the door, increasing his overhead. His complaint is that retail stores and groceries with prepared foods like Whole Foods don’t face the same restrictions.

“It’s not fair what’s going on and it’s not practical,” he said.

The changing rules can cause customer confusion – and even some resentment. Suzanne Lucey has owned Page 158 Books bookstore in Wake Forest, N.C., for six years. When the pandemic began, the store was closed for three months. Page 158 Books reopened last July, and gradually increased store capacity from 5 to 12, abiding by state guidelines. Capacity limits were lifted ahead of the holidays last year.

When case numbers started crawling up this summer, Lucey’s zip code became the third highest in the state for COVID-19 cases. They have a sign in the window that says a mask is required inside the store, but without state or city rules to back them up, they’re not enforcing it.

Lucey said only about one or two people a month disregard the rule.

“It’s hard. You don’t want to turn people away. But I want my staff to feel secure,” Lucey said, especially since two of her staff have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. “I don’t want my staff to feel like they have to be combative. So that’s how we’re handling it. Most people are pretty respectful.”

Allison Glasgow, director of operations for McNally Jackson bookstores in New York, echoed Lucey’s sentiment.

Her stores follow state and city rules for restrictions. One store has a cafe, which must follow the New York City mandate for customers being vaccinated. The bookstores also require vaccination proof at events. Otherwise, masks are optional, though recommended, if customers and staff are vaccinated.

“You can seem antagonistic when you’re trying to monitor people’s vaccination status,” she said. “It’s not ‘Hey, welcome in!’ which is what you have always wanted to do — it’s a bit of a roadblock there.”

Although safety is the priority for everyone, the changes can be draining for owners and staff alike. Jennifer Williams, founder and CEO of closet organization company the Saint Louis Closet Co., said the company scrambled at first to implement a COVID-19 plan, including masking and increased sanitization.

“We don’t have the option to ‘work from home,’ our business happens in our manufacturing plant and in our client’s homes, so we had to adjust quickly at the onset of the pandemic with Covid precautions,” she said.

She nixed the mask requirement July 1, after her staff was fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases were declining and the CDC recommendations changed. But that was short-lived.

In early August, Missouri was one of the top three states of coronavirus cases. Williams re-implemented the mask mandate.

Williams’ staffers can spend up to eight hours a day in a mask installing closet organizing systems in a customer’s home. “The mental drain on employees has been extreme,” Williams said.

Jessica Benhaim, owner of Lumos Yoga & Barre, an independent fitness studio in Philadelphia, gradually increased size limits of classes from late spring into the summer, but capped them at 12, short of pre-pandemic levels of 18 students for yoga and 14 for barre.

Even though the city has lifted capacity restrictions, she’s keeping it capped in case restrictions come back. She lifted mask requirements for vaccinated students on June 15 but reinstated them when Philadelphia implemented a mask mandate in mid-August. Vaccinated students can remove their masks when they reach their mats.

“The constant adjustments over the last 18 months have been draining,” Benhaim said. “More than anything, it’s been stressful balancing making adjustments with trying to keep a sense of normalcy for my staff and clients.”

Gun violence claiming more lives of American teens, children

ST. LOUIS — Gun violence is killing an increasing number of American children, from toddlers caught in crossfires to teenagers gunned down in turf wars, drug squabbles or for posting the wrong thing on social media.

Shootings involving children and teenagers have been on the rise in recent years, and 2021 is no exception. Experts say idleness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic shares the blame with easy access to guns and disputes that too often end with gunfire.

LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy who loved dinosaurs and basketball, was sleeping on the floor in an apartment in Kansas City, Missouri, when he was shot on June 29, 2020. A man who had been involved in a dispute with LeGend’s father is awaiting trial for second-degree murder. A probable cause statement said the suspected shooter had been trying to find LeGend’s dad after that altercation.

“Why do we have to resort to violence because we’re mad?” LeGend’s mother, Charron Powell, asks. “What are other ways we can figure out an issue without harming somebody?”

The U.S. saw 991 gun violence deaths among people 17 or younger in 2019, according to the website Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings from more than 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources. That number spiked to 1,375 in 2020 and this year is on pace to be worse. Through Monday, shootings had claimed 1,179 young lives and left 3,292 youths injured.

FBI data backs that up. The agency released a report on Sept. 28 showing homicides in the U.S. increased nearly 30% in 2020, and homicides among people ages 19 and younger rose more than 21%.

Horror stories abound.

In St. Louis, 9-year-old Caion Greene died in March when someone opened fire on his family’s car. A 17-year-old is charged in the crime. Police and prosecutors have declined to discuss a motive or say what prompted the shooting.

Two Minneapolis children were gunned down in May. Nine-year-old Trinity Ottoson-Smith was shot in the head while jumping on a trampoline. Police said she was the unintended victim of a bullet meant for someone else. No arrests have been made. Six-year-old Aniya Allen was shot when her mother drove her car through a gun battle.

On Oct. 2 in Milwaukee, an 11-year-old girl was killed and a 5-year-old girl was injured when someone fired into their family’s car from another vehicle. Police have not said if they know of a motive and are seeking information from the public.

More often, the victims are teenagers.

Jamari Williams and Kentrell McNeal, both 15-year-old students at Simeon Career Academy High School in Chicago, were killed in separate shootings on Sept. 21. No arrests have been made and police declined to speculate on what led to the shootings.

At Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter, five students were killed and nine others were shot or shot at during the last school year. Just weeks into the new school year, two students and a recent graduate have been killed. The school offers a space for memorials to slain students, often helps with funeral expenses and offers counseling services.

“We have gotten exceptionally good at knowing what to do, and how to offer help when a young person loses their life ... we have gotten really good at that,” principal Le’Yondo Dunn said.

A March report from the Children’s Defense Fund found that child and teen shooting deaths reached a 19-year high in 2017 and have remained elevated. Black children and teenagers were four times more likely than whites to be fatally shot.

The fund’s president and CEO, the Rev. Starsky Wilson, said a spike in gun sales during the pandemic has made things worse.

“There are more guns available on the street and there are folks with less opportunity to engage in productive activity,” Wilson said. “A combination of those two is really challenging.”

Social media also plays a role, experts say. A posted insult can turn quickly into retaliation, said Jason Smith, a homicide division captain in Philadelphia.

“Social media makes it so easy to throw that disrespect,” Smith said. “They’re doing it in real time.”

Dr. Lindsay Clukies, an emergency room doctor at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said she and her staff often see repeat victims.

“It’s not uncommon that we see a child with a big scar and we say, ‘What happened?’ and they say, ‘Oh, I was shot once before,’” Clukies said.

“It’s so frustrating as a medical provider because we obviously pride ourselves in taking amazing care of kids and saving lives and fixing lives, but these injuries are preventable,” Clukies said. “There’s nothing that compares to having to tell a parent that their child passed away from a completely preventable thing.”

The Justice Department sought to address the violence through “Operation Legend,” named for LeGend Taliferro. His mother takes comfort in the fact that her son’s death helped spur a national effort that resulted in hundreds of arrests. Still, the pain never goes away.

“It’s really a mental battle to get through every day,” Powell said. “It’s really difficult to know he’s not here and I won’t hear his voice.”

On the day before Father’s Day last year, someone fired shots at a group of boys on the front porch of a Chicago home. The bullet missed the boys but pierced a window into the dining room where 13-year-old Amaria Jones was showing her mom a dance routine she was perfecting for TikTok.

The bullet shattered a TV and everyone scattered for safety. When Amaria’s mother returned, she found her daughter on the floor, holding her wounded neck and trying to call out, “Mom.” Amaria was pronounced dead at a hospital. No arrests have been made.

“I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve been around a lot of gun violence,” Mercedes Jones, Amaria’s 28-year-old sister, said. “I’ve ducked bullets flying near my head. I’m used to that. Not Amaria. She didn’t hang out like me. She didn’t know that lifestyle.”

While small children are often caught in the crossfire, teenagers are most commonly targeted — often by other teenagers — in drive-by shootings on interstate highways or gunned down in broad daylight on urban streets.

Shaquille Barbour of Philadelphia was killed June 6, a week before his high school graduation — shot 13 times as he rode his bike home from a corner store. No arrests have been made, and police aren’t offering a motive.

His father, Joseph Barbour, still struggles to hold back the anger.

“I don’t think people know how hard it is, not to want to retaliate,” he said. “These kids are on the street, and it feels like they’re hunters. They brag and taunt people after they kill someone, too.”

Smith, the Philadelphia detective, said the shootings are as brutal as they are brazen.

“They will empty an entire magazine into someone’s torso or their head,” he said. “They call it walking a person down. They shoot a person and incapacitate them ... then walk them down, walk until they are standing over them and unload their firearm into that individual.”

Efforts and ideas to slow the violence are varied.

Wilson, of the Children’s Defense Fund, suggested a threefold strategy: Adopt new gun legislation to strengthen background checks and incentivize safe storage of weapons; invest in social services such as after-school programs and mental health support for young people; and create more economic opportunity, including summer jobs.

Studies have shown that victims of violence are at an elevated risk of becoming violent themselves. So St. Louis Children’s Hospital developed its Victims of Violence program that seeks to reduce recidivism by pairing surviving shooting victims with mentors and offering counseling, mediation and a link to social service agencies.

In Philadelphia, Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said police also monitor social media and if they’re aware of a feud, a team of officers and community leaders meet with those involved in the dispute.

A pilot program this year at Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz high will provide intensive services to students in danger of becoming a victim — or a perpetrator — of gun violence.

“We are going to have capacity to get about 60 students into the program but with the number of students we’ve lost, the amount of violence and guns that Philadelphia is seeing, we know there will be more students who need this program than we can get in,” Dunn said. “We know it.”