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New Greensboro coffee shop serves up both java and job experience

GREENSBORO — New coffee shop 33 and Elm is serving lattes and giving those with sight impairment an opportunity to develop employable skills.

“We really want the coffee shop to service our mission by creating new career opportunities,” said Richard Oliver, director of community outreach for Industries of the Blind, which houses and operates the coffee shop.

The shop offers cold and hot coffee drinks, smoothies, and baked goods such as apple turnovers and muffins. It also offers prepackaged salads and sandwiches.

Latoya McEachean is the shop’s lead barista. She came to Industries of the Blind about six years ago after leaving a job in customer service. She was a sewing machine operator before taking the job as a barista — a job, she said, that allows her to use her skills as a people person.

“It means a lot to me because I get to show who I am … to show my personality,” said McEachean, who has diabetic retinopathy and is considered legally blind, although she has limited sight.

Thanks to oversized labels, she can choose the right milk for a customer’s latte. She and the other baristas are also aided by magnifiers, tactile bump dots on the controls of the espresso machine, along with equipment that speaks, such as a talking scale and talking thermometer. There is even a talking register.

“For our cashier, Cassie, who is totally blind, it speaks to her,” Oliver said. “It reads her the menu options.”

For McEachean, becoming a barista wasn’t easy.

“In the beginning, it was overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve overcome a lot of difficulties and challenges.”

The name of the coffeehouse comes from the year Industries of the Blind was founded in 1933 and its original location on Elm Street. It has long been known for manufacturing brooms and ink pens, but the company also has a Department of Defense contract to make Army combat trousers and jackets. Customers can see the company’s history framed on the walls of the coffee shop whose entrance is on Highland Avenue at the southwest corner of the building on West Gate City Boulevard.

“We tie in Industries of the Blind with pieces of history of the building,” Oliver said.

Oliver said the shop has become a welcome dine-in option for Industries of the Blind employees.

“We didn’t have food service in our building, and it seemed everybody was using some of the delivery services and high fees that come along with that,” he said.

Cynthia Hundley is one of those employees who is grateful for the new dining option.

“We’ve been wanting something like this to happen,” she said.

Hundley likes the ham and cheese croissant, which she said she gets almost every day on her lunch break.

“They’ve done a wonderful job,” Hundley said.

But the shop is also open to the public. Oliver said more and more people are coming in, including students from nearby UNCG.

“33 and Elm is that forward face to the community for Industries of the Blind. You get to come in, have a cup of coffee, but be able to have a conversation with a barista who may have to do their job a little different,” Oliver said.

McEachean doesn’t see those differences as a barrier.

“Never give up. Never stop working,” she said. “You can do what you set your mind to.”

Ho-ho-whoa: Santa will see red if you visit him when you're sick

NEW YORK — Santa is back this year, but he pleads caution as he continues to tiptoe through the pandemic.

“Be smart. Be caring. If you have the tiniest tickle in your throat, the tiniest feeling, worry about yourself and worry about everybody else, and know Santa will always be there next year,” said 57-year-old Kevin Chesney, who’s been donning the big red suit since he was a kid.

Amid a downturn in Jolly Old Elves — about 15% fewer in one large database — Chesney is busier than ever from his North Pole in Moorestown, N.J. The photo studio where he works quickly sold out its 4,500 appointments to sit with him and the seven other Santas in the studio’s stable.

They’re among the brave in Santa’s ranks with full-contact visits, lap sitting included, though Chesney wears a mask until just before the photos are taken.

Other Santas might not be wearing masks or plastic face shields, or hanging out in protective snow globes like many did last year, but it seems 50-50 this season that they’re not quite ready for hugs, whispers in their ears for secret wishes, and kids smiling or sobbing on their knees.

Some Santas will remain behind barriers that popped up last year for safety. At Minnesota’s Mall of America, the big man will be housed in a log cabin behind a window with guests seated on benches in front of him. At 169 locations for the outdoor retailers Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, benches will also be used, with plastic partitions deployed at some stores for Santa’s photo ops.

Other retailers and Santa hosts are offering the option of no or full contact, even when mandates to distance aren’t in place. And many require or encourage reservations online to cut down on the number of people waiting.

More than 10 million U.S. households visited Santa in a mall or store in 2019, according to GlobalData Retail. Nearly 73% of them also spent money at nearby restaurants or stores, he said. Last year, the company’s research found that 6.1 million households visited Santa, with fewer retailers and malls offering the holiday star in person. Of those visitors, 62% ate or shopped nearby.

GlobalData Retail’s managing director, Neil Saunders, said projections this year have about 8.9 million households expected to visit Santa in person, with virtual visits still a big option.

“Lingering concerns about the virus and ongoing restrictions in some states and localities continue to act as a brake on visiting Santa in person,” he said.

Chris Landtroop, a spokeswoman for Santa vendor Cherry Hill Programs, is optimistic. The new rollout of vaccinations for children 5 to 11 will certainly help.

“Santa is so back and we are super excited about that. Last year was incredibly tough,” Landtroop said.

The company has been sourcing Santas all year for the 800 malls, big-box stores and other locations it serves, with options for no-contact visits, too. Cherry Hill requires its Santas and other employees to be vaccinated and those with exemptions to be tested regularly.

“At the end of the day, we want guests to feel comfortable,” Landtroop said.

Luther Landon has been providing the Santa Experience at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., for nearly two decades. Last year, he hit on the log cabin idea but was shut down after a day due to the pandemic. He pivoted to virtual Santa and this year will offer both.

“We think that it would be very irresponsible of us to just ignore it and pretend like everything’s back to normal,” he said of the pandemic. “We’ve hidden some microphones so Santa can hear just fine. I know from our Santa community and knowing so many other Santas that the majority of them are reluctant, highly reluctant, to go back to the way it was before the pandemic. But we also have some who are just like, you know what, I don’t care. Having both of those groups is what’s happening in the country, too.”

Russell Hurd in Royse City, Texas, has been playing Santa since 2017, after he retired from the Army. He’ll be in his red suit to go with his long — and very real — white beard at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center near Dallas. His visits with the throngs are distanced and masks are required. He longs for that to end.

“The way it used to be, it’s meaningful for us Santas, too. I mean, we’re human beings. We crave that interaction, but for now we do what we can,” Hurd said.

Hurd is unvaccinated and tests regularly for COVID-19.

“I know a lot of unvaxxed Santas across the country. I mean, it’s not just Texas,” he said.

Count American Dream, a mega mall of 3 million square feet in East Rutherford, N.J., among retailers offering distanced Santa. He’ll be on ice, skating the indoor rink with visitors, and also tooling around with guests in hot pink golf carts.

At Macy’s stores, Santa will be making his list and checking it twice from behind a desk, with guests seated on the other side.

“We’re encouraging everyone to maintain masking throughout their visits,” said Kathleen Wright, senior manager at Macy’s Branded Entertainment. “Santa has been a part of the Macy’s tradition since 1862 so we’re overjoyed that we can safely continue the tradition this year.”

At Oakbrook Center, a mall in suburban Chicago owned by Brookfield Properties, Santa’s spot is a tricked-out motorhome with his fans allowed inside. Santa will be happening at 117 of 132 malls Brookfield owns in 43 states. The company is following local mandates on safety protocols but will distance anyone who asks. The same goes for CBL Properties, which owns 63 malls in 24 states and offered Santa visits from a safe distance last year.

“We’re bringing back a more traditional Santa experience this year,” CBL spokeswoman Stacey Keating said. “Visitors who wish to do so will be able to sit on Santa’s lap or on Santa’s bench. Masks will not be required at the set or during photos unless there’s a local mandate in place.”

And, bonus: “We’re also bringing back pet photo nights with Santa,” she said, “as well as Santa Cares, a reservation-only event that caters to those with sensory sensitivities and for whom the traditional experience may be too overwhelming.”

The pandemic has taken its toll on Santa in other ways.

Stephen Arnold, the 71-year-old head of IBRBS (formerly the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas) said his organization of about 2,000 Santas and Mrs. Clauses has lost 57 Santas to COVID.

“Most of us are overweight, diabetic, with heart conditions,” said Arnold, a long-time Santa working this year both virtually and in person in Memphis, Tennessee. “I mean, we’re prime targets for a disease like COVID.”

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Reality bytes: A violent virtual world prepares Greensboro police for the real one

GREENSBORO — Gun drawn, Tiffanie Rudd watched a scene unfold in a school library.

There, an agitated teenager armed with a large knife held several students hostage, threatening to hurt them if Rudd, a police officer, came any closer.

Should Rudd shoot? Try to talk the student down? Wait for help?

Those are questions police officers are forced to consider if they come into contact with a dangerous person.

Luckily for Rudd, the situation wasn’t real.

It was a simulation.

“It’s all computerized,” said Patty Potter, the board president of the Greensboro Police Foundation.

The new training simulator, located at the Public Safety Training Facility on North Church Street, is a much-welcomed donation from the foundation. For about $57,000, the organization purchased the unit to prepare officers for the kind of situations they might be faced with on the street.

Facing a large projector screen displaying computerized scenarios, officers can speak directly to the screen and interact with the people on it.

“You have a gun that’s computerized,” Potter explained. “It’s the exact same model of gun that the police use.”

Officers can also practice using other measures, such as pepper spray and tasers.

Potter had the opportunity to try out the simulator during a recent demonstration.

“First time I did it, I did a great job,” she said. “Second time, I got killed. The third time, I got the kid killed that I was supposed to be protecting.

“It’s instantaneous stuff.”

Though Greensboro police officers are often put into situations where they’re forced to draw their weapon, it’s extremely rare for them to use it.

Between 2015 and 2019, officers used force — which also includes tasers and pepper spray — on an average of .09% of calls each year. That’s about three to four incidents out of about 4,000 calls for help each week, according to department data.

The scenarios, which often play out in under a minute’s time, force officers to make split decisions.

Upon completion, trainees go through a debriefing.

Should they have used a taser instead of their gun? Did they shoot too soon? Too late?

In a time when the actions of police are highly scrutinized, proper training could make all the difference.

According to Potter, it was at the request of Chief Brian James that the foundation sought to raise money for the simulator.

“When Brian James came onto the scene, we sat down with him and asked him for his wish list,” Potter said.

Since 2012, the Greensboro Police Foundation, composed of community members, has raised money for the department. Their first major project was acquiring body-worn cameras for officers.

For Potter and the Greensboro Police Foundation, the reason to fund new equipment like the training simulator is simple: “We just want to see our community thrive and be a safe place to live.”

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Americans are back together for the holidays as COVID-19 cases are rising. Again.

Millions of Americans have returned to the Thanksgiving table for the first time in two years, with vaccines and boosters in their arms and rapid tests at their disposal.

But as the holiday season kicks off and temperatures approach freezing across much of the nation, families are huddling indoors at a time COVID-19 is accelerating at a disturbing pace. After steadily dropping over the last months, the seven-day national average in new COVID-19 cases has increased by 18%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week.

Cases are surging in the frigid Upper Midwest, with hospitals in Michigan — where infections have increased by 67% in the last two weeks — nearing capacity. In New England, where vaccination rates beat the national average of 59%, outbreaks are appearing in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont as immunity wanes. In New Mexico, Santa Fe Public Schools went back to remote learning on Tuesday after an uptick in COVID-19 cases. California is urging residents to not let their guard down despite the state having one of the lowest infection rates in the country.

Just a month ago, Americans were booking travel plans as infection rates across vast swaths of the nation were on a downward trend. Children ages 5 and older became eligible for their shots this month, and the CDC now recommends boosters for all adults. That news was encouraging, but a persistent 30% of the adult population refuses to get vaccinated even as new federal mandates will require it for millions of workers.

Health experts are worried about another season of death and sickness.

“I’m hopeful that it won’t be as bad as last winter — but it could still be really, really bad,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The people we are least worried about are the ones seeking out the vaccines. We know that boosters can cut down a vaccinated person’s risk even more. But if that’s all we focus on, we are still leaving dangerous gaps in immunity.”

Such gaps — highlighted by the country’s political divisiveness over the vaccine and just about everything else — will resonate through the holidays. Most Americans appear determined to move beyond the pandemic. But the coronavirus remains stubborn and like its consequences, including clogged supply chains, masked faces and rising inflation, will be felt well into the new year.

Still, President Joe Biden and his top pandemic adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have told the nation that it’s safe to celebrate Thanksgiving again.

Travel data show Americans are heeding the call. According to the Transportation Security Administration, air travel this year is expected to approach 2019 levels.

In interviews, Americans said they were excited to again join extended family over the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Year’s Day. They also calculated risks and diverged in how much caution to take.

In Las Vegas, Marshall Thompson has invited dozens of guests — children, in-laws, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — to his home.

“We’re eating on the patio and inside — deep-fried turkey — and everyone has to be vaccinated to get in the door,” Thompson said. “Everyone has to wear masks when they are not eating.” He said his guests were “scrambling to get their boosters” in a state where 54% of the population has been vaccinated.

Michelle Cromer, 61, is keeping her 20 guests in the backyard of her home in El Paso, Texas. She lives in a liberal pocket of a conservative state where the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has long opposed pandemic restrictions, including attempting to ban schools from enforcing mask mandates. About 54% of Texans are vaccinated.

“In October, I emailed invites and asked everyone to show me their vaccination card,” Cromer said. “The request eliminated some family members.”

Her brother, who is vaccinated, won’t be joining in person because his wife is unvaccinated. They’ll tune in via live video from Dallas.

In Binghamton, N.Y., Annie Sisk had plans to host a few of her daughter’s friends for Thanksgiving. That was before cases began increasing. In New York state, the number of infections have has grown by 28% in the last week, reaching the state’s highest rate since April.

“We thought that, since we were vaccinated, we could loosen up just a little bit,” said Sisk, 55, who has hypertension and diabetes and lives with her 22-year-old daughter. The conditions increase her likelihood of more severe sickness if infected.

“We were going to ask people to take a test before coming over. Now, we’ll just have Cornish game hens by ourselves.”

Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who will be joining family in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said the risks are slim for those who are vaccinated and healthy. His dinner table will include his 95-year-old grandfather, who is vaccinated, and guests will also take rapid tests.

Still, Mina said the rising rates nationwide worried him.

“The cynical part of me is frustrated, as though we didn’t live through this during the holidays a year ago,” he said. “We should expect the patterns of history to continue to present themselves.”

There’s also another wrinkle, experts said. Seasonal flu cases, while still low, are beginning to climb, signaling that emergency rooms could quickly become overridden by the coinciding contagions. Health officials in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and and California have warned of rising influenza infections. Early this month, a Los Angeles County man became the first to die in the region this season because of complications from the flu virus.

Even in California, where COVID-19 infection rates are low at a 1.9% positivity rate, there’s caution. Visiting a San Francisco vaccination clinic this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested that the state could once again see wide infections and hospitalizations if residents acted without without vigilance.

“States are struggling because people are taking down their guard,” he said. “I don’t want to see that happen here in California.”