Israel may have to reimpose COVID-19 restrictions this week as the Delta variant drives a rise in new cases

masked teenager with curly hair gets covid vaccine shot
A teenager receives a dose of a coronavirus vaccine at a Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation in Tel Aviv, Israel, on June 21, 2021.

Israel may have to reimpose coronavirus restrictions as the Delta variant fuels a surge in new cases.

The country’s rapid vaccine rollout was initially successful, bringing the country down to just a handful of new infections per day. But now the rate has climbed back up to roughly 300 new cases per day – largely due to the spread of the Delta variant. Emerging research suggests Delta is more transmissible and possibly deadlier than other coronavirus strains that have emerged so far.

The outgoing director of Israel’s Health Ministry, Chezy Levy, said at the end of June that the Delta variant accounted for about 70% of the country’s new infections.

In a coronavirus-cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Israeli officials are set to discuss how to curb the virus’s renewed spread, The Times of Israel reported. The government may reinstate the “Green Pass” system that it retired on June 1, when the country was reporting fewer than 20 new cases per day.

Green Pass was a vaccine-passport system that allowed vaccinated people – as well as those who have recovered from a coronavirus infection – to return to indoor dining, shows, and events. Reinstating that system would mean limiting some gatherings and barring unvaccinated people’s access to some venues.

“In the last week there has been an increase in the rate of infection,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told a cabinet meeting on Sunday, according to The Jerusalem Post. “As part of what we have learned from the past, we will not wait to protect the health of Israeli citizens.”

He added: “Without the cooperation of the citizens of Israel, and if the morbidity continues to rise, we will consider reimposing some of the restrictions connected to the Green Pass.”

Vaccines have proven effective, but Delta threatens Israel’s progress

israel covid vaccine
An Israeli military paramedic prepares a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, to be administered to elderly people at a medical center in Ashdod, southern Israel, January 7, 2021.

Vaccines have significantly decreased severe illness and deaths in Israel. Even with Delta spreading, the Pfizer vaccine has been 93% effective at preventing hospitalizations, the Health Ministry has reported.

But in preventing infections overall – including mild ones – the vaccine’s efficacy has dropped from 94.3% between May 2 and June 5 to 64% from June 6 to July 3, according to the news site Ynet.

About 38% of Israel’s population remains unvaccinated, according to The New York Times’ tracker. Those people are vulnerable to severe illness and death as case counts rise. It’s not yet clear whether vaccinated people with mild infections of the Delta variant can spread it to the unvaccinated.

Already since June, the Israeli government has reinstated an indoor mask mandate and tightened restrictions on travelers from other countries. It’s also announced that vaccinated people may be ordered to quarantine if they’re exposed to the Delta variant.

masked woman wearing hat sits on israeli beach
A woman wears a face mask as she sits by the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 21, 2020.

Still, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem predicted that the nation could hit 1,000 cases per day in just two weeks if more isn’t done to curb the virus’s spread, according to local media.

Levy told Israeli TV station Channel 12 on Sunday that Israel may need to start limiting large gatherings again – particularly those involving children and unvaccinated people.

“We’re not close to what we’ve seen in the past,” he said, according to The Times of Israel. “It’s nothing like the caseload we had earlier.”

At the peak of its largest COVID-19 surge, earlier this year, the nation reported nearly 12,000 new cases in a single day.

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A Delta variant surge in South Africa prompts the government to impose a curfew, close schools, and ban alcohol sales. This ‘devastating wave’ could be worse than anything in 2020, the president warns.

South Africa and the coronavirus
A man carries home groceries during a nationwide lockdown in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) near Durban, South Africa

  • South Africa has tightened coronavirus restrictions to stop the spread of the contagious Delta variant.
  • Alcohol sales and gatherings are banned, and a curfew is in place.
  • It’s one of the first countries to re-enter a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Delta.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

South Africa has tightened coronavirus restrictions during a “massive resurgence of infection” driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised address Sunday that the country was in the “grip of a devastating wave.” He banned alcohol sales and gatherings other than funerals, and imposed a nighttime curfew.

He said that “by all indications” the current wave would be worse than the virus peaks of 2020. On Sunday, South Africa recorded more than 254 new coronavirus cases per million – higher than at the peak of the first wave, in July 2020, although slightly lower than the second peak, in January of this year.

For comparison, on the same day the US recorded about 35 new daily cases per million, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

Vaccination rates in South Africa remain low. Less than 5% of the population have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Our World in Data.

Read more: Experts explain why the mRNA tech that revolutionized COVID-19 vaccines could be the answer to incurable diseases, heart attacks, and even snake bites: ‘The possibilities are endless’

Ramaphosa said that the Delta variant was rapidly replacing the Beta variant, first detected in South Africa, as the dominant variant. It had been detected in five provinces – Eastern Cape, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, and Gauteng, he said.

Gauteng, which contains South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, had the highest number of Delta cases and more than 60% of the country’s new cases, he said.

Ramaphosa placed the country on alert level 4, one level below full lockdown, for at least two weeks. “Measures we’ve so far adopted may no longer be sufficient to reduce transmission,” he said, warning that people previously infected with the Beta variant could still get infected with Delta.

Ramaphosa said that the Delta variant was about one and a half times more infectious than the Beta variant, and had mutations that may help it avoid the immune response.

South Africa’s schools are now closed, alcohol is prohibited, and all gatherings are banned except for funerals, where numbers will be capped at 50. Restaurants are only open for takeaways or delivery, and people are encouraged to work from home. A strict nighttime curfew is in place and masks are mandatory in public. Travel is still allowed, though.

Juliet Pulliam, director at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA) said on Twitter Monday that the last 15 months had been “brutal” for South Africa. “The next few months will continue to try us,” she said. Pulliam said that vaccination was the “best hope” for making COVID-19 manageable in the country.

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Anti-vaccine groups used Telegram to send ‘apparent death threats’ to BBC journalists, report says

coronavirus mask protest london
Anti-lockdown protests in London.

  • Telegram users reportedly shared BBC journalists’ addresses and info in an anti-vaccination group.
  • BBC News asked staff to undergo training for handling “in-person” attacks, The Observer reported.
  • Attacks on reporters hit unprecedented levels in 2020, The Committee to Protect Journalists said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

BBC News is said to have tightened its newsroom security after receiving threats against journalists from anti-lockdown or anti-vaccine groups.

The Observer reported that conspiracy groups on the messaging app Telegram had “swapped details of journalists, including their addresses, and have attempted to organise abuse.”

The report also quoted from a BBC staff memo sent out on Friday, which detailed the formation of an internal BBC group to study the safety of the news broadcaster’s employees.

BBC director of news and current affairs Francesca Unsworth said in a memo that staff should go through training for “in-person” attacks, according to the report.

“We know these attacks are more often aimed at women and journalists of colour, so we want to make sure we have particular support for those groups and are looking at what this could be,” Unsworth wrote.

Violence against journalists has been on the rise around the world, spurred in part by restrictions designed to slow the pandemic, according to Unesco.

That group published a report last September showing “a significant and growing threat to media freedom and freedom of access to information in all regions of the world.”

Attacks on US journalists have also hit “unprecedented” levels last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York nonprofit.

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The end of pandemic-related lockdown is bringing a wave of cocaine to Puerto Rico

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard cutter Heriberto Hernandez crew members offload over 200 kilograms of cocaine, valued at over $5.6 million, at Coast Guard Base San Juan, March 2, 2021.

  • A surge in cocaine seizures indicates that routes through Puerto Rico are reactivating after pandemic-related dormancy.
  • Puerto Rico has strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the US because of its status as a US territory.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Puerto Rico is seeing a surge in cocaine seizures, indicating that drug flows are being reactivated after months of dormancy amid pandemic lockdowns and that the island is on track to tally a record drug haul in 2021.

The latest seizure occurred on April 17, when the United States Coast Guard intercepted a speedboat traveling along the coast of Aguadilla that was carrying 400 kilograms of cocaine, El Nuevo Día reported.

According to Puerto Rican authorities, the total amount of cocaine seized was up by nearly half year-on-year through March and 64% through mid-April.

On April 8, Puerto Rico tallied a record cocaine haul, according to the Associated Press. Puerto Rican Police Commissioner Antonio López reported the seizure of 2.4 tons, valued at $50 million. López explained that the drugs were being transported in speedboats off the southeastern town of Yabucoa.

One month beforehand, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the seizure of almost two tons of cocaine, also in Yabucoa.

According to InSight Crime’s press monitoring, around six tons of cocaine have been seized from January to late April along the island’s Caribbean Coast. This compares to 15.6 tons for 2019, already one of the highest totals on record, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) mentioned that Puerto Rico is used as a transit point by Dominican, Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers, as well as Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).

The island offers strategic value for traffickers moving drugs to the United States due to its status as a US territory. Once the drug shipments enter Puerto Rico, they are more easily transported to the continental United States, as Puerto Ricans can transit freely and do not have to go through customs controls.

InSight Crime analysis

Coast Guard Caribbean cocaine Puerto Rico
Coast Guard crew members offload 302 kilograms of cocaine valued at $8.5 million in San Juan, Puerto Rico, January 28, 2021.

Puerto Rican authorities believe that the spike in cocaine transiting the island is due to the months of restrictions on transit amid the pandemic, the testing of new trafficking routes and the backlog of accumulated drugs.

“[Due to the confinement], drug traffickers had difficulties in moving merchandise. The consequence may have been that the drugs accumulated and they are looking for ways to enter the drugs,” Lt. Felícita Coreano, director of the Puerto Rico’s United Rapid Action Force (Fuerzas Unidas de Rápida Acción – FURA), told El Nuevo Día.

According to the DEA, cocaine shipments enter Puerto Rico almost entirely by sea. The shipments are mostly sent by speedboats and fishing vessels from Colombia and Venezuela. These boats usually make a stop in the Dominican Republic, where the drugs are collected by criminal networks who then move them to other destinations, including Puerto Rico.

However, in its latest report, the DEA warned of a new speedboat route directly connecting Venezuela to Puerto Rico and bypassing the Dominican Republic. This route could be behind the increasingly large shipments found in the US territory.

“[The drug traffickers] are looking to expand and find new shipping routes,” Habib Massari, a drug policy expert in Puerto Rico, told El Nuevo Día.

Investigations conducted by InSight Crime in the Caribbean indicate that a number of criminal networks in Puerto Rico provide logistical services for international traffickers, especially Dominican groups.

Dominican groups are responsible for coordinating drug shipments from Puerto Rico to the United States ­- particularly to northeastern states – via shipping containers, messenger services, private planes and “mules.”

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The Great GOP Migration: How South Florida became a shadow capital for Trump conservatives

Trump mask Miami
Supporters of then-President Donald Trump in Miami after the 2020 election.

  • As conservatives flee Blue State hostility and lockdowns, South Florida has become a GOP power base.
  • The GOP social calendar orbits Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, while revelers party mask-free at swank house parties and penthouses.
  • Greater Miami has lured California tech and right-wing news. Florida’s politics is meanwhile shifting Red.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Brittney Reed needed to get in front of Donald Trump and it had to happen fast.

It was the eve of two special elections in Louisiana, and Reed–the head of the Louisiana GOP–knew an endorsement from Trump could make the difference. So, she had secured a last-minute ticket for a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago and flew to Palm Beach to make her case in person.

It was mid-March, and Mar-a-Lago had partially closed a section of the club after several workers tested positive for COVID-19. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who became a national figure for loosening coronavirus restrictions, had booked the club for the evening and his event went on as planned.

When DeSantis and Trump finished their remarks, Reed made a beeline for the former president to discuss the two Republicans she wanted in Congress: Julia Letlow, the widow of congressman-elect Luke Letlow, who had died from COVID complications, and Claston Bernard, a former LSU track star.

Trump turned to DeSantis and others around him.

“Ron, what do you think of this race here?” Trump said, according to sources with knowledge of the event. (Representatives for Trump, DeSantis, and Bernard did not respond to Insider’s questions about the encounter.) “Is it possible, what do you think?”

The crowd agreed that Letlow was a good bet, while DeSantis said Bernard’s seat “wasn’t winnable” because the district was heavily Democratic. Trump had praised Letlow before, but it wasn’t widely known his removal from social media platforms had silenced the former president’s preferred megaphone. “How am I going to do this endorsement if I do it?” Trump asked.

Mar a Lago better
The Atlantic Ocean is seen adjacent to former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, in 2018

“Put a press release out. We’ll get it everywhere,” Reed said.

The following day, Trump released a statement promoting Letlow’s candidacy. She won easily.

Mar-a-La-Go-Go

South Florida has long been a haven for those fleeing frigid winters and high taxes. Once the pandemic began, a jet set of monied Manhattanites, tech entrepreneurs, and untethered influencers restless from Blue State lockdowns flocked to Miami en masse — helping turn Greater Miami into a conservative power base.

Once Mar-a-Lago went from being Trump’s “Winter White House” to full-time residence, the Republican Party’s social calendar has increasingly orbited his beachfront Xanadu.

“Republicans used to go to the Upper East Side to raise money but most of those people aren’t even in New York anymore. They’re in their second home in South Florida,” said Adam Weiss, a Miami-based public relations executive. “Now that New York completely shut down, that drove a whole new group of people to come down here.”

So far this year, Trump’s members-only resort has hosted high-dollar soirees for DeSantis, Utah Senator Mike Lee, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Alabama Senate candidate Lynda Blanchard.

“I have to say, I’m getting calls from senators, they all want our endorsement and I’m being very selective,” Trump said at the Noem gathering, which donors paid $4,000 to attend.

Party honchos even relocated their confabs to South Florida to ensure a Trump appearance.

The American Conservative Union switched its annual CPAC event from suburban Maryland to Orlando in February to avoid limits on large indoor gatherings. It was there that Trump made his first public remarks since leaving office.

Trump won
Former President Trump’s supporters gather near his Mar-a-Lago home on Feb. 15, 2021.

The Republican National Committee picked Palm Beach for its spring donor retreat in April and set a portion of the weekend at Mar-a-Lago to appease Trump after officials angered the former president by using his image in its fundraisers.

When Air Force One touched down in West Palm Beach on Jan. 20, hundreds of MAGA-hatted faithful lined Southern Boulevard gripping blue “Trump 2020” flags and hand painted “Trump Won” signs as the former president’s motorcade whizzed by.

It was a far friendlier atmosphere than he had lately experienced in Manhattan, where raucous protesters would pack Fifth Avenue, at the foot of Trump Tower, whenever Trump returned from Washington.

“It’s a wealthy place and there’s not many places where there are so many heavy hitters who are Republican,” Weiss said.

Arrest Trump 2
A protest in front of Trump Tower on March 8, 2021 along New York’s Fifth Ave.

“Isn’t it so nice that Miami is open?”

Power lunches in Palm Beach still reign among Trump’s inner circle. Rudy Giuliani is known to hold court at The Breakers and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been seen dining at La Bilboquet, a Worth Avenue outpost of a high-end Manhattan eatery that opened in February. The afterparty crowd for Mar-a-Lago events often hits Cucina Palm Beach where Kimberly Guilfoyle, who purchased a $9.7 million mansion with her boyfriend Don Jr. in nearby Jupiter, has been spotted dancing on the tables.

The love for Trump spreads 70 miles south of Mar-a-Lago to Miami, a city that never sleeps thanks to many coronavirus restrictions lifting months ago.

They pack into Carbone, one of the restaurants dotting Collins Avenue in South Beach. Or Socialista, a swanky lounge attached to Cipriani Restaurant, where transplants from San Francisco start-ups rub shoulders with maskless models and the occasional conservative influencer, before moving on to an all-night party at a South Beach penthouse or at the Star Island mansion of plastic surgeon Leonard Hochstein and “Real Housewives of Miami” star Lisa Hochstein.

“Isn’t it so nice that Miami is open?” one tech founder, who called himself a COVID refugee, said. “I’m so over COVID.”

But the hottest reservation in Biscayne Bay is Joia Beach, a Mykonos-inspired beach club with views of megayachts and the Miami skyline.

There’s currently a three-month wait on Open Table but VIPs like Akon, Maluma, Adriana Lima, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Tiffany Trump have snagged tables to nibble on Tasmanian trout crudo ($20), Turkish octopus ($30), and winter fennel and crab salad ($28).

It helps to be on a texting basis with one of the restaurant’s partners. Others have tried more unusual measures.

“People have swam in,” Marko Gojanovic, a Joia Beach partner and real estate agent, said. “There are people who have tried to pull jet skis in areas we can’t see. People have paddled up to us. Thank God we have security.”

Ron and Kim
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Kimberly Guilfoyle at a Trump campaign rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in 2020.

Coronavirus is still raging in Florida a year after the pandemic began. The state has had more than 2 million cases and 33,000 deaths, with a quarter of the state’s total occurring in Miami-Dade County alone. But South Floridians–old timers and new arrivals alike–have largely shed their coronavirus concerns like a chunky sweater at the beach.

No one shames people for forgoing masks at hotels and restaurants or packing house parties. Mar-a-Lago remains a mask-free zone.

Contrast that to what happened in the northeast last winter, when a video of a Queens Republican club’s Christmas party, featuring a maskless conga line, gained 3.7 million views online and drew torrents of condemnation. Manhattan Young Republicans were so spooked by the media they held their winter gala at a secret location in New Jersey.

Washington has become less hospitable to Trump-friendly conservatives too. American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp said he’s had several hostile encounters with progressives in public. He and his wife, former White House communications aide Mercedes Schlapp, are eyeing a move south.

“I was eating a salad last weekend at a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria and was berated by a woman who called me an ‘a–hole,'” Schlapp said. “Usually you have to cut someone off in traffic to earn that kind of title but here you just have to be someone recognized for being a Republican.”

The Great Republican Migration

South Florida has been beckoning conservatives for years, but locals say the influx has accelerated since Trump took office in 2017.

Thank U Trump
Supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump await his return to West Palm Beach, Florida.

Fox News is still headquartered in Manhattan but other right-wing outlets have proliferated along the Gold Coast. Newsmax, the Boca Raton-based cable channel, is adding a news bureau in Miami later this year. Conservative radio host and Palm City resident Dan Bongino is one of several commentators trying out for the slot that Rush Limbaugh anchored from Palm Beach until his death earlier this year. Far-right podcaster Bill Mitchell has been broadcasting his YourVoice America program from Miami since 2019. And MAGA influencer Maggie Vandenberghe fled California for Palm Beach this winter.

The party’s donor class soon followed. Billionaires fleeing Blue State progressivism decamped to Miami’s most exclusive islands. Palantir co-founder and Republican megadonor Peter Thiel plunked down $18 million in September for a Venetian Islands chateau where MTV’s “The Real World: Miami” was filmed. Founders Fund partner Keith Rabois chided San Francisco for being “massively improperly run and managed” before dropping $29 million on an estate near Thiel in December, while Blumberg Capital’s David Blumberg blamed “poor governance” in California before making his cross-country journey.

“Miami should be the easiest and cheapest city in the country for somebody to start a business,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said. “I want to make sure everyone around the country knows that Miami is here to help you grow, not keep you from growing.”

A political shift is underway

Florida’s transformation from swingy purple to deeper red would have been unthinkable two decades ago when George W. Bush won the state and the presidency by a minuscule 537 votes. Southeast Florida swelled more than a million people since 2000 but it is far less of a Democratic stronghold than it used to be.

Trump and FL GOP
US President Donald Trump at Florida’s Lake Okeechobee in 2019, with Governor Ron DeSantis and Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.

President Barack Obama won Palm Beach County by 24 points and Miami-Dade by 16 points in 2008 en route to statewide victories during both presidential campaigns. But Trump won twice by making up ground in Democratic counties.

Florida Republicans knocked doors for months boosting turnout while the Biden curtailed canvassing during the health crisis. The Trump campaign also accused Democrats of supporting socialist policies — a message that resonated among Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants who fled brutal left-wing regimes.

“Democrats were flat-footed in dealing with accusations of socialism in commercials where people had lived under the boot of socialism,” Dan Gelber, Democratic mayor of South Beach, said. “I don’t think we responded aggressively enough.”

Latino voters in Miami-Dade also feared economic damage from school and business closures more than getting sick, according to voter data Equis analyzed.

miami volleyball
Beachgoers play volleyball on Dec. 19, 2020 in South Beach.

“As bad as the coronavirus pandemic was in terms of caseloads and deaths, apparently a lot more Floridians were concerned with the economy and that certainly helped Trump,” Aubrey Jewett, University of Central Florida political science professor, said.

Trump’s presence in Florida has benefited the state’s ambitious officeholders. Ron DeSantis has become a 2024 frontrunner in several polls after being one of the first governors to reopen his state. Marco Rubio has a clear shot at re-election and is again seen as a likely presidential candidate.

While the coronavirus has sped up the conservative influx, it’s not clear what will happen once the pandemic recedes. New arrivals could stay in South Florida now that remote work has become more prevalent and there’s less of a need for face-to-face meetings.

There’s always been a stigma about Miami but people told me in their New York circles that stigma has been lifted,” said Reid Heidenry, a Sotheby’s agent who sold over $100 million in real estate in the past year, said. “In the business world, it’s now socially acceptable to live in a place like Miami Beach.”

Whether a COVID refugee or long-time fixture of Miami Beach, there’s one thing that’s indisputable across party lines.

“Freedom tastes pretty good,” Zangrillo said at a house party.

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As virtual reality’s popularity grows, sex-tech companies are making plans for increased online intimacy

Raspberry Dream Labs Haptic Cyber Sex
People wearing Raspberry Dream Labs prototypes in London.

  • The founder of sex-tech company Raspberry Dream Labs said the pandemic may lead to a cybersex boom.
  • “The time is so ripe for it,” Angelina Aleksandrovich told Insider in an interview.
  • Her company is testing a VR cybersex experience with immersive sounds, scents, and haptic pulses.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Has COVID-19 changed the way the world will hook up?

It seems that way, according to Angelina Aleksandrovich, founder and creative director of Raspberry Dream Labs. Her company’s been busy building a rig and software so people who are apart can still enjoy intimacy. The time is right, she told Insider.

Companies like Aleksandrovich’s are positioning themselves for a future with rising remote intimacy, even with the end of lockdowns visible on the horizon. It’s one of a few competing visions of the post-vaccine future. Suitsupply, for example, launched an ad campaign this year featuring zero social distancing, with the tagline “The new normal is coming.”

Raspberry Dream Labs Founder Angelina Aleksandrovich.JPG
Raspberry Dream Labs founder Angelina Aleksandrovich wearing a VR headset she gives volunteers for her cyber-sex experience using XR, a combination of virtual and augmented reality, haptic stimulators, sounds and scent.

In the future envisioned by Raspberry Dream Labs, some people may still be skittish about meeting new partners in person, even as the pandemic fades.The company’s rig is meant to give users who are apart a sense of being intimate, with immersive sounds, visuals, and scents. It also places haptic pulses on their bodies, giving them the sense of being touched. It’s still a prototype but eventually, users will be able to wear the rig and enter the company’s virtual platform, Raspberry Dream Land, to meet others, Aleksandrovich said.

The London-based company recently demoed the experience, hosting a weeklong event that celebrated sexuality, identity, gender, body, technology and futurism. It included talks given by artists and sex-tech proponents, who attempted to demystify cybersex, said its founder.

Now, Aleksandrovich said the company’s prepping for a public launch of Raspberry Dream’s platform. The company tested virtual reality hosting sites, but “faced enormous oppression” and censorship from the companies that ran them, Aleksandrovich said. So it’s building its own platform instead.

Aleksandrovich continued: “As in what the future hold for us: It holds total independence from censoring corporations and freedom of radical expression as we build our own social webXR platform – Raspberry Dream Land – where people can meet in the virtual world, go on the dates, attend events that would be censored elsewhere online, get playful and build meaning connections over the distance.”

Raspberry Dream Labs colored prototype
A Raspberry Dream Labs prototype.

Aleksandrovich said Raspberry Dream Labs was created as a hybrid of her formal training as an artist and her work at creative agencies, where she pitched VR experiences to big brands.

She hadn’t intended to start a company; her plan for the rig was just to create it as a one-off project. But she quickly found that she felt “better about myself doing something meaningful.”

“I’ve been interested in sex since my early childhood. But the lack of early age sex education and growing up in post-soviet eastern Ukraine didn’t help my curiosity,” Aleksandrovich told Insider.

Raspberry Dream prototype backpack haptic rig cybersex
A woman wearing Raspberry Dream Labs haptic rig.

After graduating from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, she built VR and immersive productions for brands. She mostly followed creative briefs, but also started pitching ideas about multisensory experiences, including scents and temperature control.

“But something that would’ve sounded like a great career was actually eating me from the inside,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling happy creating ‘brand experiences’ for brands I didn’t care for, just for the sake of being able to keep up with that life.”

In 2018, she was poking around through files on her computer, when she found a folder filled with stuff she’d made at art school. It was then that Raspberry Dream Labs was born.

“They made me feel very nostalgic and reminded me that I already found my passion, the subject of human sexuality,” she said. “All I had to do was act upon it.”

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The UK economy shrank a better-than-expected 2.9% in January – and analysts are predicting ‘swifter’ growth thanks to vaccines

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The UK economy faced tough new COVID-19 restrictions in January

The UK economy shrank 2.9% in January as tough coronavirus restrictions forced businesses to close, official figures showed Friday, although the contraction was smaller than the 4.9% fall economists expected.

It left the UK economy 9% smaller than before coronavirus struck in February 2020, the Office for National Statistics said. However, economists have predicted “swifter” growth, as coronavirus vaccines pave the way towards a resumption of more normal activity.

The contraction in January, when a national lockdown came into effect, followed growth of 1.2% in December. The UK suffered the worst slump in the G7 in 2020, with GDP shrinking 9.9% across the year.

ONS deputy national statistician Jona thn Athow said: “The economy took a notable hit in January… with retail, restaurants, schools and hairdressers all affected by the latest lockdown.”

However, Britain has been one of the fastest countries at rolling out coronavirus vaccines and hopes to gradually reopen the economy over the spring and summer.

The country’s government-spending watchdog expects growth of 4% in 2021, reflecting the first-quarter lockdown. But it then foresees growth of 7.3% in 2022.

The Office for Budget Responsibility said in March there would be “a swifter and more sustained economic recovery” than previously thought, “albeit from a more challenging starting point than we forecast in November.”

Unemployment is now expected to peak at 6.5%, down from an earlier estimate of 7.5%, reflecting the quicker rollout of vaccines and extra government support.

In January, sharp slowdowns in consumer-facing services and education drove a contraction of 3.5% in the UK’s dominant services sector. Manufacturing shrank 2.3%, its first fall since April 2020.

Paul Dales, chief UK economist at consultancy Capital Economics, said: “Overall, January’s lockdown left the economy in a fairly big hole.

“But the government’s easing roadmap has provided the ladder and the vaccinations are providing the willingness to climb out of it.”

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How ghost kitchens’ business models could threaten the future of traditional dine-in restaurants

Pasta Cooking in Industrial Kitchen.
Dark kitchens were already gaining popularity before the pandemic.

  • Dark kitchens are gaining popularity, enabling restaurants to cut costs during the pandemic. 
  • Spanish broadcaster RTVE estimated 25% of home food deliveries now came from dark kitchens. 
  • If the trend continues, traditional dining establishments will likely find it difficult to recover.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the food industry forever and brought new trends with it.

Among them are “dark kitchens” or “ghost kitchens.”

Dark kitchens consist of premises where food is prepared for home delivery or collection but do not have a dining area or waiters.

The business’s customer service and dining area rental aspects are removed, cutting costs and enabling a direct relationship with consumers.

The concept was already gaining popularity before the pandemic, taking over fast-food chains and supermarkets.

Many restaurants also share premises and facilities to cut costs even further.

Over the last year, dark kitchens have grown exponentially in popularity.

Grocery giant Kroger announced in October that it was opening more dark kitchens to meet surging delivery demand, and Chipotle outlined plans to open its first dark kitchen in November, although the chain has been using digital kitchens within its restaurants for some time.

In many ways, dark kitchens have been the saving grace of the pandemic, allowing restaurants to continue operating despite restrictions that ban diners from visiting their establishments.

25% of food deliveries during the pandemic come from dark kitchens, according to Spanish broadcaster RTVE.

It’s not just restaurants that are catching on – it’s delivery giants too.

Food delivery firm Deliveroo, now worth $7 billion, said it would spend its latest funding win of $180 million partly on investing in dark kitchens.

This will enable them to increase their profit margins hugely as they will no longer be dependent on delivery commissions from restaurants.

However, there are concerns that dark kitchens could threaten traditional dining establishments, as they cannot compete with the larger profit margins, quicker deliveries, and lower prices offered by dark kitchen restaurants.

If they do not return in numbers equivalent to pre-pandemic levels, it will be difficult for restaurants to recover from the losses incurred over lockdowns and closures will be inevitable.

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Texas isn’t the only state lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s how 11 other states and cities are easing lockdowns, despite the CDC insisting that ‘now is not the time.’

greg abbot coronavirus vaccine texas
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

  • Texas on Tuesday became the largest US state to ease its lockdown restrictions.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that would end all COVID-19 restrictions, including a mask mandate, on March 10.
  • Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan also made announcements to ease restrictions.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Texas on Tuesday became the largest state in the US to lift its mask mandate.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order set to end all COVID-19 restrictions on March 10. He tweeted that “Texas is OPEN 100%,” and said “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Monday of a potential resurgence of coronavirus infections in the US, despite a dip in numbers of new cases nationally.

“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, said. “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”

Texas isn’t the only place in the US easing restrictions. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan, as well as Chicago and San Francisco, all made announcements to ease restrictions on Tuesday, though the details varied.

Montana, Iowa, North Dakota, and Mississippi have already waived mask-wearing restrictions, and Michigan has eased other lockdown restrictions. Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina have not enforced state-wide mask mandates throughout the pandemic.

In Florida and South Dakota, schools and businesses have been widely open for months.

More than 35 US states have kept their mask-wearing rules in place, albeit with variable enforcement.

Here is how some other states, as well as some cities, are easing their restrictions.

Chicago

Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot arrives at a University of Chicago initiative event for the science in Chicago, Illinois, on July 23, 2020.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago announced Tuesday that hospitality, sports, and performance venues could increase to 50% capacity, up from 40%. The maximum number of people is 50, or 20 people for indoor fitness classes. Curfews were also extended. The changes were effective as of Tuesday.

San Francisco

Mayor London Breed of San Francisco said Tuesday that indoor dining, indoor fitness, museums, and movie theaters would be allowed to reopen Wednesday at limited capacity.

Louisiana

Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said on Tuesday that starting Wednesday, businesses could operate at 75% capacity, except in indoor event halls, which were limited to 50% capacity at a maximum of 250 people.

Live music could also resume indoors. He said that the state’s mask mandate would continue, and the new rules would remain in place for at least 28 days, until March 31.

Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced easing of restrictions on Tuesday, set to take effect on Friday.

Restaurants would be able to operate at 50% capacity – increased from 25% – and retail, entertainment, and sports facilities could open at increased capacity, she said. People can also visit a nursing home after a negative COVID-19 test.

Michigan has a state-wide mask-mandate, and Whitmer said mask-wearing, social distancing, and washing hands was “more important than ever.”

Mississippi

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves.

Mississippi rescinded a state-wide mask order in September, but Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said Tuesday that county-specific mandates would be lifted too. He also said that the only COVID-19 restrictions that would remain were a 50% cap on the number of people in indoor arenas, and that certain restrictions would remain in schools.

North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina eased restrictions starting February 26, lifting a curfew and allowing indoor venues to operate at limited capacity. There is still a mask mandate.

Arkansas

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on February 26 lifted capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms, and large venues. He said that the state’s mask mandate would remain in place until March, provided the number of cases and hospitalizations were low.

Massachusetts

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts said February 25 that restaurants could open at full capacity – albeit with social distancing and table size and time restrictions – starting Monday.

Other venues could open at 50% capacity, with no more than 500 people allowed inside. A state-wide mask mandate is still in place.

Washington

Gov. Jay Inslee lifted restrictions for five counties in the state on February 14, and allowed restaurants to open up at 25% capacity.

Montana

Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana terminated the state’s mask mandate February 12.

Iowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa lifted restrictions February 5. Iowans no longer have to wear face coverings in public. Businesses can have as many people as they want inside and don’t have to abide social-distance guidelines.

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California officials order residents to stay in their homes as available hospital beds drop below 15%

Santa Rosa California
Residents in Santa Rosa, California, relax days before the lockdown was announced.

  • Much of California will enter a new restrictive lockdown on Sunday, with businesses closing and people being asked to stay indoors.
  • Available hospital beds in southern California and the Central Valley region dropped below 15% capacity on Saturday, triggering the lockdown, per an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom. 
  • “Lives are at stake, so this action is necessary,” said Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency, in a statement.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Much of California will enter a new restrictive lockdown on Sunday, closing businesses and asking people to stay in their homes, as hospitals reached their limits from a surge of new COVID-19 patients.

As of Sunday night, tens of million of Californias will be ordered to stay at home, and will be required to wear masks whenever they’re outside their homes for essentials. Most businesses will close. 

The mandate covers the Bay Area, Southern California, including San Diego and Los Angeles, and much of the Central Valley. It comes into effect as hospitals in Southern California and the Central Valley fell below a threshold of 15% available beds, set by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday. In the Central Valley, just 8.6% of beds were empty as of Saturday, with 12.5% empty in Southern California, said the California Department of Public Health.  

“The bottom line is if we don’t act now our hospital system will be overwhelmed. This is the most challenging moment since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said when announcing the stay-at-home restrictions.

 

California has had 1.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 19,734 deaths, according to according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Los Angeles County is the worst-hit county, in both California and the US, topping the list with 430,583 confirmed cases, and 7,842 deaths. San Francisco County has had 16,236 cases, and 162 deaths. 

California logged a record 25,068 new cases on Friday, per The Associated Press.

In the Bay Area, the San Francisco mayor, London Breed, opted to impose the strict lockdown, even though her county hadn’t fallen below 15% hospital bed capacity. 

 

Midday Saturday, the Southern California region, which includes San Diego and Los Angeles, announced that less than 15% of its hospital beds were free, which would require it to enter the lockdown.

“Lives are at stake, so this action is necessary,” said Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency, in a statement. “We must restrict our activities and avoid contact with others to reduce transmissions of COVID-19.”

Melissa Melendez, a Republican state senator from Riverside County in Southern California, urged residents to “get the capacity back” up on Saturday to avoid the shutdown. 

 

As COVID-19 cases rose in California in the last month, both Newsom and Breed were photographed at separate crowded dinner parties in Napa Valley. Both later apologized. 

Newsom on Saturday struck an upbeat note on Twitter, saying: “There is light at the end of the tunnel. A vaccine is coming. We can do this.”

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