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Texas Lifting Mask Mandate And Other Restrictions; House To Vote on Revised COVID Bill Tuesday; California Amusement Parks Reopen April 1; Pope Meets Top Shiite Muslim Cleric, Visits Christian Town Devastated By ISIS; Monarchy Braces For Interview With Harry And Meghan; Broadway Performers Take The Stage In Australia. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired March 7, 2021 - 04:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The yeas are 50, the nays are 49, the bill as amended is passed.


KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): One step closer to COVID relief as U.S. President Joe Biden's enormous stimulus package clears a partisan hurdle. We will tell you when Americans should start receiving relief checks.

Pope Francis on the last leg of his historic trip to Iraq, set to visit a church once destroyed by ISIS.

Plus, royal rumble: Queen Elizabeth will speak to her nation; then hours later, it's Harry and Meghan's turn to open up with Oprah.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world, I'm Kim Brunhuber. This is CNN NEWSROOM.


BRUNHUBER: Millions of American families and businesses trying to get through the pandemic are a big step closer to getting a desperately needed financial boost.

The U.S. Senate narrowly passed President Biden's massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Saturday. Some of that money could start appearing in bank accounts before the end of the month.

Now it includes $1,400 per person to those who qualify. And unemployed Americans could get a $300 increase to their jobless benefits through September 6th. This is Biden's first major legislative win since his election, even as Senate Republicans flatly rejected efforts to make it a bipartisan measure. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now this bill returns to the House of Representatives, which has done a great job from the beginning. We're hopeful we will find quick passage so it can be sent to my desk to be signed into law.


BRUNHUBER: CNN's Jessica Dean has more of what's included in the stimulus bill and the next steps to getting it passed in the House.


JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The Senate passing this massive COVID-19 relief bill right along party lines 50 to 49. But it passes a major hurdle, goes over to the House, where they plan to vote on the changes and then it goes to President Biden's desk, pledging that families will begin to relieve those stimulus payments as soon as this month.

And this is a massive bill. In addition to those $1,400 payments it also has money in it for reopening schools, unemployment benefits, for state and local governments as well as vaccines and vaccine distribution, child tax credits.

It is a big bill that touches so many pieces of the American economy.

Here's majority leader Chuck Schumer on that partisan vote.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MAJORITY LEADER: Now that we're in the majority, they don't seem to want to work with us. But we will get it done. Anyway, we prefer them to work with us, we want them to work with us. Maybe they'll change their minds after this.

But we're going to get it done regardless because America needs it and that's what we did. So we didn't stop, we didn't let anything get in our way.


DEAN: And again, Democrats staying unified to get this bill passed. At one point, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, senator Joe Manchin, looked like they might lose him to a Republican amendment on unemployment benefits. It stalled out on the floor for nearly 12 hours as they worked that out.

Then senators were here overnight into Saturday morning before they ultimately passed this bill. Now it's back to the House on Tuesday then over to President Biden -- Jessica Dean, CNN, Capitol Hill.


BRUNHUBER: All right. For more on this let's bring in Natasha Lindstaedt. She is a professor of government at the University of Essex.

Thanks so much for joining us here.

Before we get to the politics behind the struggle to get it passed, what's the most important plank in this bill for you?

NATASHA LINDSTAEDT, PROFESSOR OF GOVERNMENT, UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX: Well, I think it's the anti-poverty aspect of the bill, the increasing the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,000 to $3,600, depending on the age of your child. This is viewed as one of the largest anti-poverty bills in modern history.

It will lift millions of people out of poverty and, from an economic standpoint, it will create all kinds of new consumers. So that was the aspect of the bill that I think is worth noting.

This is really the antithesis to trickle down economics. The idea behind this is we need to focus on lifting up the poor to get the economy going and also, from a human level and from a societal level, to care more about lifting those out of poverty.

BRUNHUBER: All right. So the public perception of this, the Biden administration says, you know, they learned from Obama's stimulus experience, when they didn't do enough to sell Americans on the benefits of that huge stimulus. So they vow not to make the same mistake.


BRUNHUBER: Polls show that this is broadly popular.

But what do they have to do to get Americans fully behind this?

LINDSTAEDT: I think Biden is going to have to make a presidential TV address, talking about the bill and explaining the benefits of the bill. But he already does have support.

I mean, early support in February, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, revealed there was 68 percent support; a more recent poll from Monmouth University reveals it's about 60 percent. Either way, you have a strong majority that support this bill already.

So what will be key for the Democrats is just illustrating the important points of the bill and how this is going to really help the average American.

BRUNHUBER: All right. So let's get to the politics of this now. The amount of wrangling needed to get this through, you know, it might be a bit of hyperbole to say Joe Manchin has more power than the president but it sure felt like it for all of those hours there.

What does this sticky process presage for Biden going forward in terms of getting the rest of his agenda passed?

LINDSTAEDT: Biden has several things to contend with. He has to contend with a highly polarized Senate, with the Republicans not willing to support this. Now if we were to contrast this with the big COVID bills that happened in March and December, that had some bipartisan support.

This didn't have any bipartisan support. And he also has to contend with some moderate Democrats, who, in the end, really didn't want as much of the support to, for example, some of the stimulus checks, they wanted to change the eligibility.

And so that really impacted the bill as well. And they weren't able to get the increase to the minimum wage passed, either. So Biden has many things to contend with. On the Republican side they just weren't really willing to agree to anything. They came in February with a $618 billion proposal; that was way under the nearly $2 trillion.

And they felt that the child tax credits were a form of welfare. They felt that giving $130 billion to schools without stipulations for opening up the schools to in-person teaching was going to keep children at home more.

And they really disagreed with the idea of giving $350 billion in aid to state and local governments because they felt this was entirely partisan, ignoring the fact that, even if the state was run by a Republican governor and they weren't in lockdown, you still have many people that died, high death rates, which is a huge loss of humans but also a huge loss to human capital.

So they just disagreed on so many different issues here. And from the Democrats' side they're saying this is just a knee-jerk reaction. This is an element of Trumpism, the residue of Trumpism, where the Republicans are just unwilling to compromise on issues that they might have been willing to compromise with in the past.

BRUNHUBER: OK. So as you say, there is no hope of bipartisanship there. There is a growing chorus, I guess, behind the idea that Democrats may need to scrap the filibuster in order to get everything done. But they may not even have the votes for that.

LINDSTAEDT: Right. They may not have the votes for that. That's why they're using this process known as reconciliation, where they don't have to get the 60 votes to prevent a filibuster. And the Republicans didn't like this, either. They didn't like the fact that Biden had preached unity and bipartisanship and then decided to push through things anyway.

But the Democrats are saying that's exactly what the Republicans did when they were in power and this is the only way to really get the big policies that they want to achieve accomplished.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, but I mean, the immigration and election reform, those things can't be accomplished by reconciliation so they will have to do something here.

LINDSTAEDT: Right. They're going to have to use the public support for reform of immigration, for example, to try to get these passed. There's also public support for increasing the minimum wage up to $15. There's 60 percent support for that. So they will have to use public opinion polls to show Republicans, if

they want to get themselves reelected, they're shooting themselves in the foot by not supporting some of these bills.

BRUNHUBER: Many fights still ahead. Thank you so much for joining us, Natasha, appreciate it.

LINDSTAEDT: Thanks for having me.

BRUNHUBER: The race to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus is picking up steam as more people seem to be willing to roll up their sleeves. Polls conducted by Axios and Ipsos show vaccine hesitancy is declining.

Last September only 13 percent of American adults said they would get a shot as soon as possible. That number more than doubled by December. Then it jumped to 43 percent in early January. Now 57 percent say they've already received it or will as soon as possible.

Vaccines are definitely in high demand in California. This vaccination site in Valencia, look at all those cars there. It's been at least 2,800 people per day, according to officials.


BRUNHUBER: CNN's Natasha Chen explains how the effort to get more Americans inoculated is speeding up.


NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At the current pace of about 2 million vaccine doses administered per day, the U.S. could reach herd immunity by late summer through vaccinations alone.

CNN analysis shows 70 percent of the U.S. population could be fully vaccinated by the end of July and 85 percent by mid September. Experts estimate between 70 percent and 85 percent of the population must be protected to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You don't know how special this is --


CHEN (voice-over): There is hope on the horizon for people like Peggy Nickola, who's now fully vaccinated. She's hugging her son and daughter-in-law for the first time in a year.

PEGGY NICKOLA, VACCINE RECIPIENT: I keep on saying to everybody, if you have a family cares about you, you are already way ahead. My kids have been extremely wonderful.

CHEN (voice-over): As many states are now expanding vaccine ability beyond the elderly, Dr. Anthony Fauci clarified it is better to vaccinate people ahead of their turn than to let doses go to waste due to canceled appointments or logistical issues. One challenge for vaccination sites is knowing how many doses they'll

get each week. Fulton County, Georgia, is one of the places about to get a huge boost in resources and predictability with the help of FEMA. A steady flow of vaccine shipments to ramp up vaccinations at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

DR. LYNN PAXTON, FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT HEALTH DIRECTOR: With this new initiative, the vaccine is coming. And we can handle definitely 6,000 a day.

CHEN (voice-over): The state of California announced Friday that theme parks and counties with lower virus spread can reopen at 15 percent capacity to California residents only, beginning April 1st.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I really think it is time and enough people are starting to get vaccinated, I think California needs it. Look at how dead it is out here.

CHEN (voice-over): Connecticut will keep its mask mandate but allow some businesses like restaurants to reopen at full capacity with social distancing requirements. West Virginia is doing the same but allowing bars under those relaxed rules, too.

Health experts are troubled by that.


So why would you say we have a mask mandate but you can hold full capacity?

At the end of the day, that's where you will see transmissions.

CHEN (voice-over): Meanwhile, some states are completely lifting mask mandates, Mississippi, North Dakota, Iowa, Montana and Texas, where the governor there says it is safe to reopen at 100 percent starting Wednesday.

CHEN: After announcing the relaxing of those restrictions, Texas governor Greg Abbott alleged without evidence that migrants coming into Texas were exposing the state's residents to coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci said to MSNBC today that undocumented people in the U.S. should get a vaccine when it is available to them. He said the Department of Homeland Security made it clear there will be no punitive element associated with people getting a vaccine -- Natasha Chen, CNN, Atlanta.


BRUNHUBER: COVID variants are a real wild card right now.


DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: The variant of greatest concern right now to us Americans is the B117, the variant first identified in the U.K. And that variant is spreading very rapidly here. I mean, it is doubling in every 10 days. It's spreading exponentially. That's not good.

However, this variant is one for which the vaccines that we have seem to be extremely effective against. There are these other variants, the variants coming from South Africa and Brazil, the B1351 and P1, they are a bit more concerning.


BRUNHUBER: So here are some reasons why that variant from Brazil in particular is more worrisome. It's now been detected in at least seven U.S. states. And not only is it more contagious, it's apparently been able to reinfect people who have recovered from other strains of the virus.

The governor of Sao Paulo says his region is on the brink of collapse as the variant threatens to overwhelm the health system.

The House of Windsor divided: Prince Harry and Meghan are set to share their side of the drama inside the British royal family. Plus the former aide to the late Princess of Wales compares the two situations.


PATRICK JEPHSON, PRINCESS DIANA'S PRIVATE SECRETARY AND CHIEF OF STAFF: It has taken on a lot of the trappings of a big media PR story, but at the heart of this are real people really hurting.






BRUNHUBER: All right. To a busy, final full day for the pope in Iraq. He's arriving now at his next stop, a church in a Christian town that had been destroyed by ISIS. It follows a visit to Mosul.

The pope led a prayer for the victims of war and earlier met with the Kurdish region's religious and political leaders. Those are live pictures we're seeing of the pope arriving. We will go to Ben Wedeman, who joins me from Irbil.

The pope's very presence in Mosul seemed incongruous, given the not- so-distant history there.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's incongruous, Kim, on so many levels. What struck me just a few minutes ago was looking at pictures of him without a flak jacket, riding through the streets of Mosul in an open golf cart. It's unthinkable for anybody who has been in Iraq for very long to see

a leader of his statue (sic) seemingly exposed like that and able to actually move around. It was in Mosul in the summer of 2014 that Abu Baker al-Baghdadi called upon his followers to conquer Rome, in his words.

Now we see the bishop of Rome, another name for the pope, in the city of Mosul itself. But there is no sense of triumphalism to his visit.


WEDEMAN: He has been very careful throughout his time to show support and solidarity with the shrinking Christian community here in Iraq but also to extend a hand of fellowship, of brotherhood to the Muslim community.

Yesterday, for instance, his program was largely dedicated to exactly that, first meeting with the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and then that interfaith event in the ruins of Ur, where Abraham was born.

Now he is in Qaraqosh, a town, perhaps the largest Christian town in Iraq, where, in the summer of 2014, ISIS forces initially bombarded the town. The inhabitants realized that they had no way to protect themselves. Most of them fled elsewhere in Iraq, including to here, Irbil, in northern Iraq.

And the city was liberated from ISIS in late 2016. We went to attend the first mass in 2017 in Qaraqosh. The church had been burnt, there were piles of charred Bibles and prayer books. The main courtyard in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where the pope will be addressing worshipers that was used as a firing range by ISIS.

So to see him going around northern Iraq like this is something that is hard to really digest. But it's something for Iraqis as a good news story. This is a country where, oftentimes, people turn on the TV and the news is all bad. But at least for the last few days, they've been able to crack a smile as they watch television -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: And as I say, we're watching live pictures of his arrival in Qaraqosh. The message he is expected to deliver there to the Christians who had been expelled from there and from other regions, he's saying they should return and rebuild.

Is that likely?

WEDEMAN: Hard to say because, yes, the spirit is very high at the moment. But once he leaves, Iraqi Christians and Muslims, Yazidis, whoever, are going to go back to the realty of Iraq today, which is COVID, an economy in crisis, politics paralyzed by corruption and incompetence.

And those are realities that aren't going to go away after the pope leaves. Speaking with Christians here, many of them will tell you, Kim, that so many people have left, keeping in mind that, in 2003, there were about a 1.5 Christians, maybe today 300,000, it's sort of the center of gravity has moved abroad. That their relatives, whether they are in Australia, Canada, Sweden,

wherever, they send back pictures of their new lives, videos of their new lives. And many people feel that their ties to this land despite centuries, millennia of presence here, is starting to loosen, as so many of their relatives have left.

BRUNHUBER: Thank you so much, Ben Wedeman. We will follow along with this historic trip throughout the hours here. Thank you again.

Well, eyes are on the British royal family today. First, Queen Elizabeth and others are expected to celebrate Commonwealth Day in a special broadcast. But later the royal mood could get a little darker. Prince Harry and Meghan won't be there.

Instead the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are set to reveal what they really think in a hotly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey. The talk show host teased that no topics were off the table, including how this public hostility reminds Prince Harry of how his mother, Diana, was treated.


HENRY, PRINCE OF WALES: For me, I'm just really relieved and happy to be sitting here talking to you with my wife by my side because I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like for her, going through this process by herself. My biggest concern was history repeating itself.


BRUNHUBER: The Princess of Wales was largely shunned by the royal family following her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996 and, of course, she died tragically in a car accident a year later while being pounded by paparazzi.

All of this tension is playing out against the backdrop of an aging Queen Elizabeth and an ailing Prince Philip, who has been hospitalized since mid-February. CNN's Anna Stewart joins me from London.


BRUNHUBER: So much anticipation for tonight's interview.

If you are not, you know, necessarily a royal watcher, why is this such a big deal?

ANNA STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is really significant because, for the first time, we're hearing from Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, on how it felt to be an outsider joining the royal family.

It's a perspective that you very rarely get. And in terms of this couple, we have heard from Prince Harry. He gave a press statement last year. There have been a few written statements. He recently gave an interview to James Corden and spoke about how the British press were destroying his mental health and he felt like he had to leave. But we haven't heard it from Meghan. A lot of the focus on tonight

will be on what she says. And we have had, of course, some teaser clips. We know she does believe that the firm, which is a term referring to the royal family, played an active role, she says, in perpetuating falsehoods.

A finger pointed at the British press but also perhaps at the royal family. And that will be an explosive insight. Kim?

BRUNHUBER: Tell me a bit more about the mood and reaction so far there in the U.K.

STEWART: Well, in the U.K., this week has been -- well, it's been deluge news from Prince Philip, who is still in the hospital behind me and has been now for nearly three weeks to today's Commonwealth celebrations for the royal family, we have the queen giving a recorded message on a TV in a few hours.

So much attention has been in the run-up from this interview with Oprah Winfrey. It split people's attention, on social media people really picking sides and not just between the Sussexes and how the British press treated them, which is how we saw it maybe a few weeks ago.

But increasingly people taking sides on whether they support the Sussex camp or the royal camp which is an extraordinary scenario to see. It won't broadcast in the U.K. until Monday evening but we will be hearing a lot about it in the press tomorrow.

No topics are off limits, what is that Oprah Winfrey said. It is two hours long so in addition to having insights into what happened in the royal family and any potential rifts, we're looking for more information on the British press, racism in the U.K., what Meghan has to say about that, mental health, the parallels drawn between how she has been treated and how Princess Diana was treated.

And parallels have been drawn from this interview being that seminal moment as it was when Princess Diana gave the interview to the BBC in 1995, which had real bombshells delivered, for instance, the line in which she said there were three people in that marriage. This is how significant this interview is being seen.

BRUNHUBER: Just quickly before you go, because you're there, any update on Prince Philip's condition?

STEWART: I'm sad to say no updates on Prince Philip. But we did have good news last week. He underwent a procedure for a heart condition at a different hospital and two days later was transported back to this private, small hospital.

We are being told he will be here for a number of days for continued treatment. He also an infection and is recuperating. I hope he is not reading the newspapers and that he is not going to be watching this interview, because I think it would make for very difficult watching.

BRUNHUBER: Absolutely, well said. Thank you so much, Anna Stewart, in London.

Still to come on CNN, mask burning demonstrations across the state while some local leaders are supporting them. Stay with us.





BRUNHUBER: And welcome back to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber and you're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

All right. More now on the pope's visit to Iraq. These are live pictures here. He is in the Christian town of Qaraqosh and has just arrived at a church that was attacked by ISIS. CNN's Delia Gallagher is traveling with the pope and she joins us on the phone.

Tell us exactly about where you are, why the pope is stopping there, the symbolic meaning behind this visit.

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: This is just an amazing moment the pope has just walked into the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qaraqosh. This was a church that was used as a training camp essentially for ISIS.

In fact, I'm talking to you from the courtyard, where you can still see the bullet holes that they used to practice their firing. The church was largely destroyed, statues toppled, books burned and the people obviously fled this town of Qaraqosh, which is the largest Christian town in Iraq.

Many of them have relatives who were killed. I've just been talking to some of them in the church. They had to flee, their homes were destroyed. They began to come back, they went mainly to Irbil nearby, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an autonomous region.

They came back here to start rebuilding, to try to find work. But of course, not all of them have come back. There are refugees nearby in Irbil and surrounding places. The pope has come here, just imagine, just under five years ago, this place was overrun by ISIS. And today the pope is here to encourage the Christians to come back, to stay here.

Also talking to the Iraqi authorities to help make that possible. And the people that I've spoken to so far have really shown a great desire to do that.

It's difficult; this whole region is, this morning he was in Mosul, in very poignant pictures amidst the rubble of Mosul. You know, Mosul always associated as the kind of headquarters for ISIS. And there is the pope, offering up a prayer for the victims of war. This is the pope's third and final full day in Iraq. It really has

been a historic trip. People thought it wasn't going to happen. But the pope was determined to make it happen. I have to say the Iraqis have welcomed him every step of the way.

BRUNHUBER: Amazing, we see him seated there in the church, still hasn't addressed the congregation there. The message to Christians to come back, to rebuild. The message for non-Christians that interfaith tolerance and friendship.

You're suggesting that will resonate, you think, beyond the meetings with the leaders?

Any sense of how it's being received by ordinary Iraqi Muslims?

GALLAGHER: Sure. That's a great point. Obviously, he has met with members of the Muslim community. And the people I've been speaking to here say, look, we have Muslim neighbors. Everybody is mixed in together.

Obviously, that's part of the reason the pope is here, speaking to all sides. He had a very important meeting yesterday with grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader for Shia Muslims.


GALLAGHER: And apparently in that meeting, the pope thanked him for lending his voice for Christians and for unity of Iraq. And al-Sistani said Christians need to live like all Iraqis, in peace and security. That's according to al-Sistani's office, and with their full constitutional rights, which is one of the issues here.

So there may be some concrete outcomes from this trip, certainly in terms of the enthusiasm of the people, I can attest to that. What happens from here on in will be up to the Iraqi authorities and to the people here. But certainly, it has been an amazing weekend for Pope Francis. And all the Iraqis, I think, would agree with that -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Absolutely. We're going to keep following this historic visit throughout our hours here on CNN NEWSROOM. Vatican correspondent Delia Gallagher, traveling with the pope, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

We will be right back.





BRUNHUBER (voice-over): These are images from a mask burning rally in Idaho. At least 24 of these rallies popped up across the state on Saturday. A grassroots movement called Free Idaho organized the event to protest mask wearing and other restrictions due to the pandemic.

The group says it has the support of two state representatives, who say it's time to reopen Idaho and end COVID mandates. Idaho, by the way, doesn't require face masks but strongly encourages it.


BRUNHUBER: In Texas, the state's mask mandate and other COVID restrictions are set to end on Wednesday. Governor Greg Abbott issued the executive order earlier this week. The Republican's decision has triggered sharply divided reactions across the state.

CNN's Ed Lavandera spoke to some small business owners with drastically different views on how it will impact their livelihoods.



ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Mike Nguyen whips up lunch in his San Antonio noodle restaurant, he can't help thinking what might happen next week when the state's mask mandate is lifted.

MIKE NGUYEN, NOODLE TREE: What he's done is he's put the burden on the business now.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): He says Texas Governor Greg Abbott is forcing small business owners to become mask-wearing police and face the frustrations of defiant customers.

NGUYEN: Instead of being a real leader and uniting us and helping us get past this once for all, he's created division.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The last year has already been brutal for Nguyen. We met him last May when he told "OUTFRONT" that while the pandemic ravaged his business, he would close the noodle diner to undergo months of cancer treatment. Six months later, Nguyen reopened and he's struggling to keep the business going.

NGUYEN: We all have COVID fatigue. I even have it at this point. And it's just like we're on edge. People's anxiety are at an all-time high.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): This must end.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Without consulting most of his medical advisers, Republican governor Greg Abbott says because of lower positivity rates and the vaccine rollout, it's time to fully reopen the Texas economy and lift the mask mandate.

While the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is dropping, the state still has one of the highest hospitalization rates in the country.

ABBOTT: Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID. LAVANDERA: Missy Herring says in her south Texas embroidery and print shop, the mask mandate was always ignored. She's celebrating the governor's announcement.


LAVANDERA: Do you think mask wearing has kept the pandemic from getting worse?

HERRING: No. Everybody that I know who's been sick, they wore their mask faithfully. Faithfully. I've never worn the mask. I don't have people come in my store wearing the mask. I'm not sick.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): But the governor's controversial decision has sparked a tidal wave of local leaders sending out pleas for Texans to keep wearing their masks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a false claim, false pandemic.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Scenes like this is what many officials and business owners fear.

There is one other fear haunting Mike Nguyen, the recent unprovoked attacks on Asian Americans.

NGUYEN: They tell me to go back to China or "you and your kung flu." I'm nervous. And my anxiety has been at an all-time high because I'm trying to hope for the best.

LAVANDERA: Despite the intense criticism, there is a great deal of support for the governor's move to reopen the economy and end the mask mandate. However, some of the biggest chain businesses here in the United States say they will continue to insist on mask wearing by customers inside their stores.

However, there are still another number of large stores saying just the opposite. And it is that inconsistency that has many worried about how all of this is going to unfold starting next Wednesday -- Ed Lavandera, CNN, San Antonio, Texas.


BRUNHUBER: Danette Wicker own a spa and boutique in Ft. Worth, Texas, and she joins me now.

Thanks so much for coming on. So there's good news; COVID cases are trending down, vaccines are going into arms, many people feel now that the economic crisis is more of a threat than the pandemic. So lifting the mandatory COVID restrictions in Texas, you'd think that would be welcome news for businesses like yours.

DANETTE WICKER, SPA AND BOUTIQUE OWNER, FORT WORTH, TEXAS: It really wasn't in the way it was done. We didn't have any warning, we don't have our -- enough mass vaccinations, where you feel that the people with forward-facing jobs will be protected.


How hard was it, with the restrictions in place, to get people to comply in a state like Texas, where I'm sure many customers weren't thrilled about all the rules that were in place?

WICKER: I wouldn't say it was easy but we have become -- and, as business owners, we kind of got a rhythm going, where there was a consistency. You knew you needed to have a face mask to come inside the businesses. So there wasn't any kind of conflict or a fight or a question.

It was what was the city mandated, the state mandated and people wore face masks.

BRUNHUBER: So, you know, now the governor has left it to counties to enforce, you know, whatever rules they want.

So where you are, you know, we will get this experiment, where Dallas is continuing the mask mandate and, 30 miles away, Ft. Worth, where you are, they're lifting it. So then the burden is on you, as the individual business. It must put you in a tough position if you want to, say, enforce a mask mandate, now when your competitors might not.

WICKER: Exactly.


WICKER: And as a small business owner, I never, ever want to be in conflict with my small other business owners. That is not what we want to do. We have a great community here in Ft. Worth of small business owners.

But as a small business owner, if I have a mask mandate, that you need to have face masks to come into my business and people don't respect that, then just don't come to my business.

What the problem is that you will have 10 to 15 of them coming into a business that they know they need to have face masks on. And they are coming to push you to what they believe the truth to be, that they don't have to wear face masks.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, and we saw a lot of people in Ft. Worth sort of making -- making problems for people when they tried to enforce mask mandates.

So you know, how aggressive can people be when you're trying to ask them to do these simple things?

WICKER: They can be very aggressive. I am a sole proprietor and the way my business is set up, you have to come in one at a time to see me unless I book a group setting. And then, of, course, more people will be in.

But I am the arbiter and the gatekeeper of you coming in and out of my business. So I have not wavered and I have not changed. You wear a face mask to come in. That's sort of an oasis. If you don't want to wear a face mask, then simply don't come to my business.

But the problem is that you have people that are coming directly to confront business owners that have a mask mandate. And that is not what the governor's rule was. He left it up to small businesses and big businesses also to have their own policies in place. But if you are not going to respect that, that means you are just challenging me.

BRUNHUBER: So I want to ask you, you know, obviously, there is an economic reason for all of this. But there's good news on the economic front as well. The Senate passed Biden's COVID relief bill. There's help in there for businesses -- tax relief, $1 billion for sole proprietors like yourself.

All of the Republicans representing your state voted against it.

So are you happy that it passed?

Do you think it will help?

WICKER: Well, it's always good to get resources available, especially when you are a minority-owned business. But the reality is that that could be weeks or months down the line that you see resources become available.

I live on a day-to-day of businesses -- of retail services being booked. I may not have the wiggle room to wait another three, six, nine weeks before any relief comes.

BRUNHUBER: Listen, we wish you all the best of luck in these very difficult times. Thank you so much for coming on, Danette Wicker. We appreciate it.

WICKER: I appreciate you hearing me.

BRUNHUBER: California is easing more coronavirus restrictions, beginning April 1st. State officials announced Friday that theme parks and sports stadiums and counties with lower virus spread can reopen next month but can only operate 15 percent capacity and only admit California residents.

Many restaurants, gyms and movie theaters don't need to wait until April. They can already reopen in a growing number of California counties as COVID cases shrink. But restaurant owners in California and many others are still struggling to pay rent and, with the income they have already lost, some wonder how much longer they can last.


ANDREW GRUEL, SLAPFISH RESTAURANTS: I look at the numbers in California when they shut down outdoor and indoor dining, which effectively killed the restaurant industry. Cases doubled, tripled, they skyrocketed. So obviously we're not the ones that are causing these spreading events.

Restaurants are trained to be incredibly safe and sanitary. And we, actually, I think, have the opportunity to be at the forefront of fighting this and doing things the right way. But somehow, we've become vilified.

So I think that we need to begin working with local agencies and local government groups as opposed to having them work against us so that we can all kind of put our best foot forward.


BRUNHUBER: And be sure to stay with us. We will have much more on my interview of Andrew Gruel, the founder of Slapfish restaurants next hour.

The pandemic switched off the lights on Broadway almost a year ago. Now out-of-work performers are finding a new stage 10,000 miles away. We will have the details next. Stay with us.





BRUNHUBER: It's been nearly a year since the coronavirus forced theater companies to abandon Broadway, turning New York's Great White Way into a show business ghost town. Since then, some actors and performers have packed their bags and traveled half a world away to find work. CNN's Will Ripley reports.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The brilliant lights of Broadway, dark for almost a year. New York's iconic theaters empty, likely for many months to come. Nearly 10,000 miles away, in Sydney, Australia, the show goes on.

"Kismet," created by Broadway performer Reed Kelly and Australian acrobat Jack Dawson, the aerial straps duo Two Fathoms.

REED KELLY, BROADWAY PERFORMER: Right now, this is really the only place that both of us can be and do we do.


RIPLEY (voice-over): What they do takes hours of daily practice, discipline, athleticism, sacrifice.

KELLY: I'm away from my family. I'm not at home. I don't get to see my husband. We FaceTime every day, but it's -- it's been such a challenge.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Kelly's husband, a doctor in Los Angeles.

KELLY: I'm good, how's your day?

RIPLEY (voice-over): They've been apart for almost a year. If Kelly leaves Australia, his visa won't allow him to return. Sydney, one of the only places in the world where theaters have reopened.

DAWSON: We seem to be doing really well. We're really grateful to be here, where everything seems to be really under control.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Broadway star Gabrielle McClinton just returned to the U.S.


RIPLEY (voice-over): She spent months in Australia as the lead player in "Pippin." The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical was a smash hit in Sydney.

RIPLEY: Does that give you hope about Broadway?

GABRIELLE MCCLINTON, ACTOR: Absolutely. It definitely had its challenges, but we got through the season. And people came to the show wearing their masks. And we would get COVID tested every week. And when we were onstage, we were in our masks and everybody obeyed all rules. And we did our due diligence when we were outside of the theater to make sure that we weren't putting people at risk.

RIPLEY (voice-over): A model for reopening Broadway and beyond, says Australian playwright Tom Wright.

TOM WRIGHT, BELVOIR STREET THEATRE ARTISTIC ASSOCIATE: You need political and social leadership to provide a safe set of circumstances for the theater to reopen.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Sydney's Belvoir Street Theater has been open for five months. Strict COVID-19 lockdowns worked, virtually eliminating local cases.

WRIGHT: The reason why Sydney has been able to reopen is because people at, local, state and federal levels took seriously the safety of the most vulnerable people in their society. And we're a reflection of that.

RIPLEY (voice-over): The pandemic's devastating toll goes beyond empty theaters. Artists around the world are struggling.

KELLY: I've lost three people this year to suicide and that's on top of the people that I know that have actually died from COVID. It's not just a job for us. This is our legs.

DAWSON: We want to do this and we need to keep doing this, so we're just pushing through and hoping for better days.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Giving hope to performers everywhere, their future remains up in the air -- Will Ripley, CNN.


BRUNHUBER: Well, that wraps this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Kim Brunhuber. Hopefully I will have a voice for when I come back in just a moment with more news.