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News brief: battle for eastern Ukraine, travel mask mandate, China's COVID lockdown


Russian rockets and artillery shells have been falling on multiple Ukrainian cities today.


Ukrainian media reported explosions and air raid sirens across hundreds of miles. The reports come from much of the eastern half of the country. Strikes hit Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Other strikes landed along one of the few escape routes out of the besieged city of Mariupol. This is all in the region where Ukrainians have been expecting a Russian offensive from the east. And for good measure, missiles even landed in the far west.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Tom, Ukraine's president thinks this is the start of the big Russian offensive. Is it?

BOWMAN: Well, yeah, right. President Zelenskyy says the offensive in the east has begun. Others aren't willing to be that definitive. The Pentagon says Russia is still conducting what they call shaping operations - laying the groundwork for the offensive by sending in more battalions and artillery, firing more bombs and missiles, as we've just heard. Now, a large portion of the Ukrainian army is there. They've dug in. And they'll be soon getting a lot more heavy weaponry from the U.S. and NATO - artillery, helicopters, drones and armored vehicles. That has to arrive fast. The Russians will try to box in Ukrainian forces. But the big question is, do they have enough combat power to do that, enough competence? That's the big question in the coming days and weeks.

FADEL: You know, so much about this war has defied expectations. Many expected Russia's army to fare much better than it has, and yet it's failed to capture the capital, and despite besieging, bombarding and starving the strategic port city of Mariupol in the southeast, Russian forces still haven't taken that area. What's the latest there?

BOWMAN: Well, once again, as we've seen all over Ukraine, it's just bungling by Russian forces and their commanders. The Russians have poorly trained troops. They didn't have enough precision-guided munitions. And also, a big thing is they failed to attack Mariupol from multiple locations at once, which could have shaken up the defenders. John Spencer is a retired Army officer who focuses on urban warfare. He also says a big part of this is the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians. Let's listen.

JOHN SPENCER: It's really hard to get a committed, dedicated urban defender out. We have the Ukrainians who have the will to fight, which the Russians don't.

FADEL: So, Tom, why has Russia been so focused on Mariupol? They've devoted a lot of troops there, right?

BOWMAN: You know, they have. Well, first of all, it's a key port. And it also helps the Russians build a land bridge from Russia along the coast of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to Crimea, which they grabbed, of course, in 2014. So Russians sent in 12 battalion tactical groups, each of which number 800 to 1,000 soldiers - so as many as 12,000 troops. Once Mariupol falls, the Pentagon says most of those troops can head north into the Donbas region for that major battle. But another analyst I spoke with, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, he says, don't just look at those numbers; many of these battalions are really weak because of casualties, lost and damaged equipment and, again, poorly trained conscript forces who will face a battle-hardened Ukrainian army. Now, if Russia takes Mariupol, it still faces fighting in cities all over the northeast and south. The Ukrainians are proving to be very, very resilient.

FADEL: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.


FADEL: U.S. travelers are no longer required to wear masks in airports and on airplanes.

INSKEEP: At least not according to the federal government. A federal judge in Florida says the transportation mask mandate was unlawful. The ruling also applies to buses, trains and other modes of public transportation. To be clear, this does not mean you have a right to go unmasked, but it does mean the decision on mask policy is up to individual businesses.

FADEL: Joining me now to discuss this development is NPR's David Schaper in Chicago. Hi, David.


FADEL: So, David, tell us about the ruling. Why was the mandate overturned?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the judge in this case vacated the mandate, saying it exceeds the CDC's statutory authority and violates the procedures required for agency rule-making under the law. The judge also says the CDC had not adequately explained its reasoning for the mandate. You know, just last week, the CDC had extended this transportation mask mandate, which had been in place since February of last year, and it was extended into May, but now the TSA is saying that it will no longer enforce it in public transportation and transportation hubs or at airports or on airlines. All of the major airlines, including American, Delta, Southwest and United, along with Amtrak, say they won't require passengers and employees to wear masks. But many transit agencies around the country, including those in New York and Chicago, say they will still require masks. So, you know, it might be a little confusing out there.

FADEL: You know, for some, I imagine it's terrifying to be on a long flight with other maskless passengers. For others, maybe it's a relief not to have to wear it on a long flight. How are airline passengers responding?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there were those celebrations midflight, as you heard, by some travelers when they first heard the news.

FADEL: Right.

SCHAPER: At Chicago's O'Hare Airport last night, most passengers were still wearing their masks while checking in and going through security or waiting for luggage. But after a long flight from Puerto Rico, 35-year-old Miechie Williams of Chicago was ready to ditch his mask.

MIECHIE WILLIAMS: We been ready to ditch them.



WILLIAMS: We was ready to ditch them when they first made us wear them.


WILLIAMS: I can understand if you want to be more precautious. There's nothing wrong with that. But to say that everybody needs to wear it? No, I don't agree with that.

SCHAPER: On the other hand, Renee and Robert Messick of suburban Palatine, who had just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean, say they felt safer traveling when everyone was required to wear masks.

RENEE MESSICK: For me, it's a matter of respect for myself and for other people.

ROBERT MESSICK: I'd rather see us be safe than sorry. I'm grateful to Biden for, you know, trying to protect us as best they could.

FADEL: So how are public health official experts reacting? Do they think it's safe for people in these confined spaces on planes, trains and buses to be maskless?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, many of the infectious disease experts and public health officials remain concerned about these increasing numbers of the BA.2-variant COVID cases. They say this public health crisis just isn't over yet. Julia Raifman is a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. She says masks are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially when everyone is wearing them. She says even though the air filtration systems on airplanes are very good, they're not foolproof when you're sitting shoulder to shoulder next to a stranger for hours at a time.

JULIA RAIFMAN: You know, you can imagine if somebody right next to you is sneezing or coughing, you really are in better shape if you're wearing a mask and especially if both of you are wearing a mask.

SCHAPER: She also worries about the exposure some people may have on public transit, especially among people who may not have any other options for getting to work.

FADEL: Could the Biden administration appeal?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki yesterday called the judge's ruling disappointing and says the administration is considering its legal options and may, in fact, go ahead and appeal. There are those experts out there who say this ruling could be overturned.

FADEL: NPR's David Schaper. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Leila.


FADEL: While Americans relax some COVID requirements, many people in China can hardly leave their homes.

INSKEEP: We've told you about Shanghai, where some 25 million residents are still largely in their apartments, and that is just part of the story in China. More than 40 Chinese cities have some kind of lockdown policy.

FADEL: So what does it take to shut down whole cities that have the population of countries? NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So some of these lockdowns are quite intense. Has China given any indication whether such lockdowns will be relaxed?

FENG: Absolutely not. And actually, it's the opposite. They've said they're doubling down on testing and locking down everyone who's infectious. Shanghai, for example, the lockdown was only supposed to last for five days, but now it's in its third week with no end in sight because caseloads there just haven't dipped significantly. And these policies have support in China because the argument is they cost a lot of money, but they save lives, especially since a fraction of the elderly population here in China are not fully - are fully vaccinated. Most people haven't got the two or three jabs that they need. And now with the highly infectious omicron, this strategy is just starting to bear real costs. The lockdowns are getting longer. They're becoming more frequent. And on paper, the lockdowns now are actually leading to more excess deaths from chronic diseases that are not COVID...

FADEL: Oh, wow.

FENG: ...Than COVID itself.

FADEL: Wow. But to actually enforce these policies, it takes a lot of people, right? Where are these employees coming from?

FENG: That's what I was wondering because these employees are everywhere. So my producer here, Aowen Cao (ph), and I started interviewing health workers, and that's how we met Mr. Huang Bowen (ph). He used to work selling wholesale goods directly from Chinese factories to people in other countries, but the economy tanked, so he lost that job, and he's now enforcing lockdowns and giving PCR tests.


FENG: So first, he worked in another city, Shenzhen, and then Shanghai locked down, so he went there.

HUANG BOWEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying, "the bus took us straight to a quarantine center for symptomatic patients." This was not the job he signed up for. He has no health training. So he tried to go back, but then he was stuck because the city is under lockdown. Luckily for him, he called the police. He's back home. He's in quarantine. But other workers are stuck in Shanghai. They're sleeping in the train station. And there's actually been several small protests among COVID workers against their poor conditions and poor pay.

FADEL: So people finding employment here. What do all these lockdowns mean for China's economy?

FENG: It does not mean good things. They are going to have to put the economy on the back burner for now. Cities accounting for about 40% of all economic activity in China are seeing some kind of lockdown restrictions. So it seems China, forced to choose, would rather have a small recession than loosen its COVID controls. And the people that's going to hurt most are its migrant workers. There are about 300 million of them. They usually do not have full-time work. And that's why a lot of them are now making the transition to a new demand for cheap labor. They're gearing up in PPE, and they're the ones powering China's zero-COVID policies. Keep in mind, these are the people who used to assemble iPhones, assemble cars, and now we're seeing this transition where they're the ones doing the difficult and often low-paid work of going door to door, testing and isolating people.

FADEL: NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you.

FENG: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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