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Federal income tax filings and payments for individuals due Monday

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(NEW YORK) — Federal income tax filings and payments for individuals are due Monday.

The Treasury Department and the IRS extended the deadline in March.

"This continues to be a tough time for many people, and the IRS wants to continue to do everything possible to help taxpayers navigate the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, while also working on important tax administration responsibilities," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a news release announcing the extension.

Monday’s deadline does not apply to Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, where the IRS had extended Tax Day to June 15 to file various individual and business tax returns and make tax payments. That extension was a result of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster declarations in those states following winter storms in February.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What are NFTs? Everything you need to know about non-fungible tokens

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(NEW YORK) — From digital art and published columns, to sports highlights, viral photos and even memes, NFTs can take the form of virtually any type of online content and these irreplicable tokens have skyrocketed in popularity.

Simply put, a non-fungible token is a one-of-a-kind asset that lives online and is managed in a digital ledger.

These digitally unique assets are attached to a distinct value with a certificate of authenticity, so even though it exists online, the asset can't be easily and endlessly duplicated. That's because each NFT exists on decentralized digital platforms based on blockchain technology. Transactions on a blockchain platform are written to a digital ledger. That ledger publicly records every NFT transaction to confirm the item's ownership.

Blockchain supports replicable tokens including Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies -- which were once viewed as unstable and confusing, but have seen a meteoric rise among those ready to embrace the digital alternatives to traditional currency.

"NFTs can't be duplicated or copied, they're verifiably scarce," said Decrypt editor-in-chief, Daniel Roberts. "All it really means is that it can't be divided, duplicated, subbed one-for-one."

NFT defined

Merriam-Webster officially defines the three letter acronym as "a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided, that is recorded in a blockchain, and that is used to certify authenticity and ownership of a specific digital asset (such as the original version of an online photo or video).

"When a new word makes its way into the world’s lexicon, our ears at Merriam-Webster perk up," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, said when they announced the new word. "Over the past several months, NFT has rocketed into popular culture, and the team at Merriam-Webster crafted a definition to provide meaning to this emerging technology.”

Why NFTs have become so popular

From graphic designers to street artists-turned-digital creators, NFTs have created a whole new buying and selling platform for the art word.

NFT marketplaces (also known as exchanges) have attracted attention from collectors, investors, celebrities and even chefs. And with the rise in popularity and attention to the crypto-collecting space, artists have capitalized on opportunities to sell their work for huge sums with some investors spending tens of millions on one NFT.

The new medium for collectors through online auctions has also created an opportunity for a more personal connection between buyer and creator.

Plus, content creators can sell their work anywhere and collectors can access the global markets virtually from anywhere.

Where and how can you buy an NFT?

NFTs are purchased through a third-party online marketplace, or NFT exchange.

OpenSea, which was founded in 2018, is the world’s largest digital marketplace for crypto collectibles and NFTs. Other popular sites for NFT transactions include Rarible, Superfarm, Ethernity and more.

While transaction details can vary slightly by site, the blockchain auction will open during alotted times and once the NFT has a winning bid, that site connects with the new owner, usually by sending a verified link to their profile on the site within the marketplace.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Summer tourist towns hope for recovery as crowds return after COVID

Courtesy Mike Potenza

(BOSTON) — On Cape Cod, the only thing as sure as the seafood and lighthouses is the region's dependence on summer tourism.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, maybe no industry was more impacted than seaside getaways. There were no vacationers doling out for rentals, there were no diners to sit at beachside restaurants and there was no one to ride rollercoasters or waterslides. Most of the businesses didn't open at all.

Water Wizz, a water park in East Wareham, Massachusetts, has been in business for over 30 years. The park has been featured in films such as "Grown Ups" and "The Way Way Back," but due to the pandemic, its slides ran completely dry all last year. This summer, Patricia Kells is hoping to make up for lost time.

"Last summer was the hottest summer that I can remember since I've been in business," Kells, Water Wizz's president, told ABC News. "It was the best summer ever to have a waterpark, and it was shut down, and that was very painful to endure.”

Amusement parks, movie theaters, restaurants and stores are the backbone to many coastal economies. The survival of these businesses, some seasonal and all vulnerable to the unanticipated loss of revenue the pandemic caused, depend on summer turnout to keep their doors open.

"I'm one water park," Kells said. "I'm not Six Flags New England, a big corporation. I don't have a lobbyist. Nobody cared about my little dinky waterpark. I'm just not that big."

With over 59% of American adults having received at least one dose of a vaccine and with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors -- regardless of crowds -- many of these summer businesses are feeling optimistic ahead of Memorial Day.

Reinvention has always been central to the survival of local businesses, Rob Anderson, owner and chef of the Canteen in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said.

"We are not trying to go back to normal," he said. "We are trying to build a new normal."

Ninety percent of Americans are looking to travel within the United States this summer, according to HomeToGo, a vacation rental search engine. Many summer tourist towns, not just those in Cape Cod, are hoping vacationing families choose their businesses to patronize.

Steve Nicoletti, owner and chef for Cafe Beach Club, a mom and pop restaurant in Ocean City, New Jersey, is optimistic about the summer, based on the crowds he's seeing come into his restaurant. He's also concerned with having the staff to keep up with the demand, though.

"Ocean City is on the precipice of having one of its best years they've ever had," he said. "They say the rentals are at an all-time high, but one of the big issues that I believe is going to really hurt a lot of people, especially people new in business, is they don't have the employees."

While demand for housing in these coastal areas has skyrocketed, some businesses are experiencing labor shortages.

"Families can't afford to live here anymore, frankly, on Cape Cod," said Mike Potenza, director of marketing and public relations of The Lobster Pot in Provincetown, Massachusetts. "You can't earn enough to sustain your living so they move, and so there's no kids to do the jobs.”

For the family owned restaurant in business since 1979, securing a seasonal workforce has only become more difficult in the pandemic. "There's the uncertainty of the labor force, the uncertainty of the mandates and the rules that they dictate because they change all the time," Potenza said.

Small businesses have been doing their best to meet the standards of local and state COVID-19 protocols. While many businesses have appreciated receiving financial assistance from the government through Small Business Administration loans and the Paycheck Protection Program, for some, guidance given by state officials has proven frustrating, due to its nature to change with limited notice.

"As you're dealing with those growing pains, and finding your way on top of all of COVID happening, it was just a lot, it was really hard," Josh Flanders, general manager of Bad Martha Farmer's Brewery in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, said of last year.

Flanders' East Falmouth brewery, the company's second, opened just months before the beginning of the pandemic. The brewery shut down in March 2020, and then reopened in June 2020. Receiving little notice from the state before reopening last summer "was kind of a nightmare," Flanders said. Limited time to recruit staff felt like "going from zero to 100 really quickly.”

As Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center reopens, its executive director, Jamie Hook, hopes theatergoers will feel nostalgic for the past, while still having faith in life after the pandemic.

"I almost liken it to a civic duty, to experience something collectively with strangers," Hook told ABC News. "I think that that experience is really important in our nation as we go forward."

Not every vacation spot was dealt a blow last season by COVID, though.

At the beginning of the pandemic, those with the financial means to leave cities such as New York and Boston sought refuge in less-populated areas such as the Hamptons and Cape Cod. Sales on homes in coastal areas like the Hamptons continue to grow, and are up 89% compared to last year, according to Corcoran Realty.

Lisa Field, owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store on Long Island, said the migration from New York City last year was something they had never seen before.

"We're used to the season being July and August and seeing the population explode. It kind of took us by surprise, but we were able to roll with it," she said.

For the most part though, tourist destinations -- even those that are among the most famous in the country -- are enjoying welcoming back crowds.

In Brooklyn's Coney Island, one of the most recognizable amusement park destinations in the country, Luna Park reopened on April 9 after spending over 500 days closed during the pandemic.

Alessandro Zamperla, president and CEO of Central Amusement International, the company that owns and operates the park, is happy to see people on rides that are running again: "The amusement park industry is really about passion -- about loving what you do.”

From strolling down a boardwalk, to taking a trip down a water slide or sitting next to strangers at a theaters, the success of one business could mean the success of many.

"If we're not open, then people don't necessarily come up to the boardwalk as often," said Brian Hartley, vice president of Playland's Castaway Cove, an amusement park in Ocean City, New Jersey. "Because we know we're all in this together, everyone up on this boardwalk has to work together if we're going to survive."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Surprise! CDC reversal on masks leaves states, businesses scrambling

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(WASHINGTON) -- If you’re going to Starbucks or Target, bring your mask. But if you swing by Trader Joe’s, you can leave it in the car, assuming you are fully vaccinated of course. That said, if you’re taking public transportation to get there, you’ll need to mask up for the ride.

After 405 days of urging every man, woman and child to wear a mask, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stunned much of the nation this week -- including health experts – with its recommendations that vaccinated Americans can mostly ditch the mask. The decision left businesses, governors and schools scrambling to respond and an emerging hodgepodge of rules for masks, depending upon which state, county or store a person is in.

The new CDC proposal also raise serious questions: Can employers require proof of vaccination before a worker goes mask-free? Should businesses ask patrons to present proof upon entry? Could teens, eligible for the vaccine, be denied access to a classroom without a mask if they aren’t vaccinated?

Governors said they weren’t briefed in advance on the plan, despite 24 states and the District of Columbia having some sort of state-wide mask mandate in place at the time of the announcement.

"We were as surprised as anyone by the CDC’s announcement – learning about it through the press," said Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, calling CDC messaging in recent months "inconsistent, convoluted, and ever changing."

In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills told reporters she was "anxious" to hear from the CDC how to distinguish between vaccinated the unvaccinated people. But by Friday, Mills announced she was on board and that the state would adopt the CDC guidance as state policy.

Several health experts also said were caught off guard, assuming new mask recommendations would come when more Americans were fully vaccinated. Nearly 36% of the U.S. population is vaccinated, and the pace of shots has declined.

"I thought it would be prudent to wait until everyone who is willing (ages 12 and up) has had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated, around July 1," said Linsey Marr, a virus transmission expert at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University's Milken School of Public Health, tweeted: "I’m still stunned at the CDC decision."

The White House, too, claimed to be unaware of precisely what the new recommendation would be, making the case that the CDC came to its conclusion without political pressure. Press secretary Jen Psaki said only a "small number" of people at the White House knew about the proposal Wednesday night.

"The White House was informed of that decision, just to give people assurance of that," Psaski told reporters Friday.

When asked what the CDC guidance means for Biden’s executive order that mandates masks be worn on federal property, Psaki said it may take a few days for any possible changes, but she expects "the guidelines will be the guide."

"We're working to implement those [guidelines] across the government," she said.

Several big-chain stores also seemed surprised, firing off terse statements that mask mandates would remain in place until they had a chance to review the new recommendations and determine which businesses might be subject to local mandates.

"These conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations," said Lisa LaBruno, a senior executive vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

For its part, the CDC defended the new guidance as a natural next step based on emerging scientific evidence, including fresh studies that the vaccines were holding up against variants of the virus and cutting asymptomatic transmission. The CDC also cited plummeting case numbers and a recent decision by regulators that kids as young as 12 now qualify for vaccination.

"We have had a coalescence of more science that has emerged just in the last week," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, told reporters when asked what had changed in the past 16 days since the agency last released mask guidance.

Under the new recommendations, people who are fully immunized should feel safe removing their masks in almost all circumstances, even indoors and in a crowd. The guidelines call for masks to still be worn on planes, trains and buses, as well as homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons.

While the CDC insisted its decision was grounded in science, it seemed to acknowledge that it was unprepared to answer the questions that would come with it. In an interview with NPR’s "All Things Considered," Walensky said the recommendation would trigger a review of other guidance.

"What we really need to do now as an agency is comb all of our guidance not just for travel, but for schools and for camps and for child care centers and for all of the guidance that we have out there … And that is going to be the work of the weeks ahead that we have in the agency," Walensky told NPR on Thursday.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said one primary concern is that the U.S. is still experiencing active disease transmission with more than 35,000 COVID cases a day. Also, some vulnerable populations including children don't have the option of getting vaccinated.

That puts everyone on the honor system and many people and businesses confused on how exactly to stay safe, he said.

"Americans are feeling incredible whiplash," Brownstein said.

ABC News’ producers Sasha Pezenik, Ben Gittleson and Justin Gomez contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Google defends work visas for 90,000 immigrants, majority of whom are women, in court filing

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(NEW YORK) -- Google has taken a public stand in support of immigration rights via a court filing Friday that seeks to protect the ability to work in the U.S. for some 90,000 immigrants, the vast majority of whom are women.

Google led a coalition of tech companies in filing an amicus brief (or so-called "friend of the court" document) that supports work authorization for the partners of high-skilled workers who enter the U.S. on H-1B visas.

The filing relates to a years-long legal attempt to end the H-4 EAD program, which provides work authorization for spouses of those on the H-1B visa, which is commonly used in the tech industry.

"In other words, it seeks to end the ability of highly-skilled immigrants’ partners from working in the United States," Catherine Lacavera, Google's vice president of legal, wrote in a blogpost Friday. She added that the H-4 EAD program provides work authorization to more than 90,000 people, more than 90% of whom are women.

"The pandemic has already disproportionately impacted women and ending this program would only make things worse, leading to disrupted careers and lost wages," Lacavera added. "Furthermore, if the program is lost, the practical effect is that we welcome a person to the U.S. to work but we make it harder for their spouse to work."

"That hurts their family, impacts our ability to compete for talent, and harms our economy," she wrote.

More than two dozen companies -- including Amazon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Reddit more industry leaders -- have joined the amicus brief.

The court filing argues that "H-4 visa-holders -- like their H-1B spouses -- are a highly educated, highly skilled group," adding that 99% of H-4 visa-holders hold a college degree and nearly 60% have a master's degree or higher. Ending the program would cause "severe financial harm and emotional trauma on tens of thousands of individuals across the country," the brief states.

Moreover, it argues that these workers boost U.S. innovation, especially within the tech sector, and help to drive the economy and maintain American competitiveness.

Finally, it estimates any job losses to domestic workers from the program are offset by "the 6,800 jobs created by the H-4 entrepreneurs who have founded companies and employ American workers."

The ongoing litigation the amicus brief relates to stems from a lawsuit initially filed in 2015 by a group of American workers who argue they lost their jobs to foreign workers due to the visa program. The lawsuit was put on hold when the Trump administration threatened mass overhauls to the visa program, but the legal battle is back on in Washington, D.C., district court, where the tech giants' amicus brief was filed.

Lacavera said that the company's work defending immigration rights is personal, writing, "As an immigrant myself, I have been the beneficiary of a welcoming America and I hope we can ensure that same welcome for future immigrants by preserving the H-4 EAD program."

"Ending this program would hurt families and undercut the U.S. economy at a critical moment," she added.

 

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Bitcoin plunges as Elon Musk puts environmental impact under scrutiny

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(NEW YORK) -- The price of Bitcoin nosedived after Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced his company would no longer be accepting the cryptocurrency as payment due to its ties to fossil fuels in a tweet that sparked a heated debate on the digital currency's environmental impact.

"Tesla has suspended vehicle purchases using Bitcoin. We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel," Musk wrote in a tweet Wednesday evening. "Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at a great cost to the environment."

The electric vehicle company chief executive added that Tesla will not be selling any of the Bitcoin it currently holds -- which amounts to some $1.5 billion, according to a February SEC filing -- but will use it for transactions "as soon as mining transitions to more sustainable energy."

In a follow-up tweet on Thursday, Musk added, "To be clear, I strongly believe in crypto, but it can’t drive a massive increase in fossil fuel use, especially coal."

Bitcoin is made through a process called mining, which involves verifying Blockchain transactions using high-powered computers that solve complex mathematical equations. The specialized computer servers required to mine Bitcoin consume immense amounts of electricity, which in China and other Bitcoin-mining hubs often relies on energy from fossil fuels.

Bitcoin accounts for 0.69% of the world’s total electricity consumption, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF).

Annually, this would mean that Bitcoin mining and transactions consume more energy than the entire nation of Sweden or the Netherlands did in 2019, the researchers noted.

Bitcoin evangelists are quick to point out, however, that many of the headlines on crypto mining's energy consumption often leaves out the energy sources. For example, the environmental impact would be vastly different if the computers were powered by renewable energy.

A 2020 study from the CCAF said that 76% of cryptocurrency miners use renewable energy as part of their energy mix. The same researchers said, however, that only 39% of crypto mining’s total energy consumption comes from renewables.

A separate study on Bitcoin's environmental impact published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications in April said that China accounts for more than 75% of Bitcoin mining operations around the world, largely due to its relatively cheap electricity costs and easier access to some of the hardware needed for the computers.

The study estimated that carbon emissions from Bitcoin blockchain operations in China are expected to peak in 2024 and generate more than 130.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions that year alone. This emission output would exceed the total annualized greenhouse gas emission output of the Czech Republic and Qatar, the researchers said.

Musk's decision to hold onto rather than sell the company's Bitcoin investments -- as well as a recent tweet from Musk that seemed to endorse Bitcoin's positive environmental impact -- has sowed confusion on the motives for his sudden reversal.

A white paper released last month by Square, the financial services company founded by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, argued that Bitcoin mining could actually encourage investments in solar and other forms of renewable energy.

Dorsey tweeted the research just a few weeks ago, captioning it, "#bitcoin incentivizes renewable energy." At the time, Musk replied to the tweet with: "True."

Industry analyst Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, on Thursday called Musk's "major U-turn" on crypto a "head-scratching move."

"Musk is now concerned about the use of fossil fuels in Bitcoin mining and transactions, yet the nature of Bitcoin mining has not changed in the last three months, which speaks to why backtracking on the crypto transaction three months later is a very surprising and confusing move to both Tesla and crypto investors," Ives wrote in a note sent to ABC News.

The price of Bitcoin has plunged more than 9% since Musk's tweet.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hackers demanded 'millions' in ransom from Colonial Pipeline, sources say

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(NEW YORK) -- The cyberattackers that compromised Colonial Pipeline's systems demanded "millions" of dollars in ransom, sources briefed on the investigation told ABC News, and the company declined to comment Thursday on whether a ransom had been paid as its fuel delivery operations restarted.

Colonial Pipeline said Thursday that it has made "substantial progress" in its reopening following the cyberattack, and that fuel delivery has commenced in a majority of the markets it serves. The company added that it expects each market it serves to be receiving product from its system by mid-day Thursday.

The pipeline company, which transports approximately 45% of all fuel consumed on the East Coast, said Wednesday evening that it had restarted operations following a multi-day shutdown after it was the victim of a ransomware attack.

The shutdown has been linked to gas prices hiking, fuel shortages and panic-buying throughout parts of the Southeast.

Colonial Pipeline declined ABC News' request for comment on Thursday as to whether a ransom had been paid, after Bloomberg News reported that the company shelled out some $5 million to Eastern European hackers via untraceable cryptocurrency.

Brandon Wales, the acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Administration (CISA), told reporters Thursday that he has "no knowledge of whether a ransom was paid, how much was paid, if it was paid, when it was paid."

Meanwhile, sources briefed on the investigation told ABC News that while the attack is considered technically unsophisticated, the ransom demand shows some level of sophistication. The sum demanded is viewed by investigators as a figure that's high enough to be substantial but not so high as to be out of the question for a company the size of Colonial to pay.

Investigators also say they are confident the attack was isolated to the company's IT systems and did not hit the separate operating network that manages the functions of moving petroleum products through the pipeline.

The hack is seen as highlighting the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure in the U.S. to new forms of cyberthreats, and federal government officials have expressed concern that Colonial was slow to contact the federal government after the hack despite the critical role its pipeline plays in the nation.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order that aims in part at improving information-sharing between the government and the private sector on cybersecurity issues.

Meanwhile, the national gas price average in the U.S. hit $3 a gallon for the first time in seven years on Wednesday amid the pipeline saga. Many gas stations throughout the Southeast reported fuel outages as motorists rushed to the pump.

Jeanette McGee, an American Automobile Association spokesperson, said in a statement Thursday the pipeline restart means "relief is coming."

"While impact won’t be seen immediately and motorists in affected areas can expect to see a few more days of limited fuel supply, relief is coming," McGee said. "Station pumps will be full of fuel in several days. This is an especially good update ahead of the Memorial Day holiday."

As of Thursday, the national average gas price was $3.03 a gallon, according to AAA data.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Why restaurants are having a hard time finding staff right now

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(NEW YORK) -- Sue Choi and her husband own several Korean restaurants in New York City. For their latest venture, Rib No. 7, they've been trying to hire servers, kitchen staff and hostesses -- but have had few bites so far.

"I don't even get one single phone call, even for the whole week," Choi told ABC News recently.

Upping the pay hasn't helped either, she said. Pre-pandemic, Choi said they would offer $20 an hour for an experienced hostess and get "hundreds and hundreds of resumes." Two weeks after posting a job listing for a hostess at Rib No. 7 for $30 an hour, they still hadn't received one, she said.

"It's kind of scary right now," Choi said.

Choi is not alone. In recent weeks, as COVID-19 dining restrictions have loosened, restaurants nationwide have been reporting staffing shortages. As a result, some have not reopened, are reducing operating hours or are trying to attract applicants with higher wages or signing bonuses.

Much attention has been paid to the impact of boosted unemployment benefits potentially dissuading people from seeking work -- as several governors have announced they will end the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment funds -- though the reasons behind the hiring pains are myriad, experts said.

"There's not one existing issue that's making hiring so difficult in the restaurant industry, but a collective force of many different pressures," Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told ABC News.

For one, restaurants and bars are all hiring at the same time, he said, as increasing occupancy continues to require businesses to staff up.

Culinary Agents, a hospitality career website, told ABC News it has seen "significant and consistent" increases in job posting volume monthly since the beginning of the year. From January to March, posting activity nationwide increased 10 times, it said. The biggest increases were for front-of-house positions -- like waiters, servers, bartenders and hosts -- "mainly due to increased dining capacity," it said.

All these restaurants may be competing for a smaller pool of workers, experts said, as people moved away, went back to school or got work in a different industry during the pandemic.

"When we had to start closing dining rooms and we reduced our staff, unfortunately, we lost them to other industries, specifically retail and grocery retail and delivery, Uber, those kinds of things," Melissa Stewart, executive director of the ‎Greater Houston Restaurant Association, told ABC News.

Job seekers may also be looking for remote work during the pandemic; a February survey by jobs site ZipRecruiter found that 60% of respondents said they would prefer to find a job where they can work from home. That doesn't square, of course, with restaurant gigs.

"The restaurant industry is not an industry that you can work in remotely," Rigie said. "You can't mix cocktails on FaceTime."

Some people may not be able to work at all due to continued childcare disruptions. In a U.S. Census survey conducted during the second half of April, nearly one million people said an adult in their household did not look for a job in order to care for children, while over 920,000 said they left the workforce to care for children.

While anecdotal, low wages in the industry coupled with boosted unemployment benefits could be keeping some people from applying. In 2019, the average weekly earnings in accommodation and food services, which includes restaurant workers, was $407 -- about 43% of the average weekly earnings in all industries in the U.S., according to Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. Depending on how much someone can claim in their state, with the $300 boost, they could be taking home more than what they used to make.

"The generosity of unemployment benefits is no doubt also a partial explanation for why I think a lot of these low-pay establishments in particular are finding it hard to persuade people to come back to work, but it's not just that," Burtless told ABC News. "There is a childcare issue for a lot of families ... and fear of getting COVID in your place of work."

"I think all of these things are going to present challenges to employers, especially employers who think that they should be able to hire restaurant workers at the same pay they were offering before the COVID emergency struck us," he said.

Legally, if someone is offered reemployment and turns it down they're likely to lose their unemployment insurance (though owners do not regularly report to their state labor department, as required, when that happens). Many states also continue to waive requirements for those receiving unemployment to report their efforts to find work.

This month, at least five governors have announced they will cut their residents off from the extra $300 a week in federal unemployment funds in the coming weeks.

"We don't need to pay people to stay at home when employers are begging for workers. And that's what I hear," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, told ABC News' Start Here on Tuesday.

Still, restaurants and bars have been able to hire. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants and bars, was the biggest job creator in April, with employment in the sector increasing by 331,000, according to the latest Labor Department report. At the same time, the industry has a long way to go to recover, with employment down by 2.8 million, or 16.8%, since February 2020.

In the Houston area, some restaurants have had success by responding quickly to applicants and offering employee referral bonuses, Stewart said.

Rigie said he is "cautiously optimistic" for the New York City restaurant industry as more people get vaccinated and the economy continues to open up -- including Broadway in September.

"It's just a very difficult time to own a restaurant, to work in a restaurant, and it's going to take time," he said. "We're nearly 16 months into this pandemic that has decimated New York City's restaurant industry, and we're not going to recover overnight."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Norwegian CEO 'optimistic' they can reach compromise over DeSantis vaccine proof ban

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(NEW YORK) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law earlier this month that prohibits businesses from requiring customers or employees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations. This presents a potential problem for major cruise lines that have relied on Florida ports and referred to the vaccines as "game changers" in their restart-operation plans.

Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank Del Rio has said the new law could force the company, which plans to require all future guests to be fully vaccinated, to suspend Florida departures and move its ships.

"At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can't operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from, and we can operate from the Caribbean for a ship that otherwise would have gone to Florida," Rio said last week during an earnings call.

Norwegian Cruise Line President and CEO Harry Sommer appeared on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday and sounded more optimistic that they could come to a compromise.

"At the end of the day, we have the same goal in mind to restart cruising safely for our guests in an excellent way with a fantastic product," Sommer said on "GMA." "And I think when people are aligned on the same goal they find a way to move forward."

"You say your goals are aligned," ABC's Michael Strahan said, "but what does the compromise look like if the state doesn't relent, are you prepared to keep ships out of Florida?"

"I don't think it's a question of relenting," Sommer responded, "I think it's a question of us coming together with a common cause and a common goal, moving forward, and I'm confident and optimistic that we'll be able to do that."

Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian are resuming North American cruises this summer with ships sailing out of the Caribbean. Since their voyages won't involve departures or stops at any U.S. ports, they didn't need approval from the CDC. They only had to obtain officials' approvals at their planned destinations.

Since March 2020, the CDC has blocked cruise ships that carry more than 250 people from sailing in U.S. waters. The agency recently announced that it will allow cruise companies to bypass previously required simulated voyages if a ship attests that 98% of its crew and 95% of its passengers are fully vaccinated. The CDC hopes this could have ships back in U.S. waters with paying passengers as early as mid-July.

"We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity," the agency said in a letter to cruise industry officials, which was obtained by ABC News, "and that the goal of the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order's phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities."

Sommer said he can't guarantee that there will never be a case of COVID-19 onboard, but that the "combination of testing protocols and 100% vaccination is going to provide the absolutely safest vacation on the planet," adding, "that's their goal."

The CDC has yet to make a final decision on if masking will be required onboard the ship.

"We certainly hope not," Sommer said about the potential mask requirement, "You know, we think in a world where 100% of the people on board are vaccinated, that masks aren't being going to be required, but we're going to be guided by the science."

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Gas prices hit $3 a gallon for first time in nearly seven years amid Colonial Pipeline saga

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(NEW YORK) -- As the nation grapples with an unprecedented cybersecurity attack on a major East Coast fuel pipeline, the national gas price average hit $3 a gallon for the first time in seven years.

The national average price of regular gasoline is just slightly over $3 a gallon on Wednesday, according to data from the American Automobile Association. The last time average prices were at these levels was in November 2014.

Colonial Pipeline, which transports approximately 45% of all fuel consumed on the East Coast, said Saturday it was the victim of a cyberattack involving ransomware, and had temporarily halted all pipeline operations as a result. Pipeline operators have said they hope to "substantially" restore operations by the end of the week.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said that Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese met with principal leaders of the interagency group tackling the Colonial Pipeline situation.

Psaki did not give any update on where things stand with the pipeline reopening but conceded that there are “supply shortages.”

"The group discussed the latest updates on fuel supply in the affected region, and steps that agencies have taken and are considering to further alleviate the supply shortages," Psaki said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in remarks during an unrelated hearing before a Senate committee that DHS has the capabilities and resources to address all threats facing the homeland when asked about the ransomware attack.

"We are working at the direction of the president in an all-of-government way to address the cybersecurity threat that Colonial Pipeline suffered, and that other businesses and institutions across our country are vulnerable to,” Mayorkas said.

Four states in the Southeast -- Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia -- have declared a state of emergency related to the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.

Some analysts have attributed the price hikes and fuel shortages at some gas stations in the region in part to panic-buying. Fuel-price tracker GasBuddy reported Tuesday that demand had jumped 14.3% week-over-week.

As of Wednesday, some 28% of gas stations in North Carolina have fuel outages, according to GasBuddy data, marking the highest of any state. This is followed by approximately 17% of gas stations in Georgia and Virginia.

Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm on Tuesday urged calm, saying there should be no cause for "hoarding gasoline."

"Much as there was no cause for, say, hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic," Granholm told reporters, "there should be no cause for hoarding gasoline, especially in light of the fact that the pipeline should be substantially operational by the end of this week and over the weekend."

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Consumer prices spiked 4.2% in the last 12 months

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(NEW YORK) -- Consumer prices spiked sharply in April, according to new data released Wednesday by the Department of Labor.

The consumer price index, a barometer that measures what consumers pay for everyday goods and services, jumped by 4.2% in the year through April, the DOL said. It rose by 0.8% in April alone.

This marks the largest one-year increase seen since September 2008.

The closely watched data comes amid mounting fears of inflation from investors, but also reflects unique factors as the pandemic recovery is finally gaining steam.

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Summer travel expected to surge as Americans take first trips since pandemic's start

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(NEW YORK) -- As vaccination numbers continue to rise, Americans are expected to travel this summer -- taking their first big trip since the start of the pandemic.

"I think folks are really eager to make their first trip back, they've been vaccinated and feel safe and comfortable traveling, they want to make their first trip a big one," Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights and author of Take More Vacations, told ABC News.

More and more travelers are taking to the skies

Despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance against non-essential travel, more than a million people have passed through U.S. airports each day since early March, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration.

"The resurgence in demand for travel is in full swing," Keyes said. "If you look at the number of flight searches, especially the more iconic travel destinations like Hawaii or Cancun, not only is it higher today than it was at the same time two years ago before the pandemic, it's not even close."

American Airlines said it expects to fly approximately 90% of its 2019 system seat capacity this summer. United Airlines said bookings for summer 2021 are "far outpacing bookings for summer 2020."

With international destinations like Iceland and Croatia announcing they will accept vaccinated Americans this summer, U.S. airlines are adding capacity to those routes as well.

"They really want to take advantage of that spike in interest to visit those places after they announced that they're open for tourism again," Keyes said.

Delta announced Friday that it will debut new service to Croatia this summer. United said its flying more than 100% of its pre-pandemic schedule to Latin America compared to 2019. American also said its Latin American network is expected to be the same size as it was in 2019.

Travelers are booking hotels last minute

According to Hopper, a travel-booking app, 51% of all hotel bookings made on their platform are last-minute, meaning they were booked within 48 hours of check-in. The most popular cities among those bookings are Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles, the company said.

Hopper also said "staycations" are popular among their users, with more than half of all hotel bookings made through their site being less than 200 miles from a customer's origin. The company launched its "Stay the Night" feature Tuesday in an attempt to help consumers find the best fares at the last minute.

"I think initially there was a little bit of an apprehension about traveling," Adit Damodarn, economist at Hopper, said in an interview with ABC News. "But I think there is a little bit more comfort as you kind of get into this new travel period with like dipping your toes in the water exploring some local markets, and getting a feel for what it's like to be traveling again. I think that's kind of why vacations are so popular now."

Road trips are on the rise, but car rentals are hard to come by

Once travelers arrive to their destination, car rentals are becoming harder to find. In the past week, car rental searches on KAYAK were up 115%, with prices up 92% compared to the same dates in 2019, the company said.

"We've seen a huge surge in rental car searches compared to 2019, particularly in outdoorsy spots like Montana, Hawaii, Alaska and Florida," Matt Clarke, vice president of NA Marketing at KAYAK said. "Supply-and-demand logistics are playing a big role and likely leading to the volatile prices we're seeing across the U.S."

Hertz said it's seeing a spike in demand for leisure travel in cities and regions across the country.

"We anticipate strong demand for car rental to last several months and throughout the summer and encourage customers to book as early as possible and at the same time they're making other travel arrangements," the company said in a statement to ABC News. "Another tip is to consider booking at a neighborhood car rental location which may have more availability when airport volumes are high."

Enterprise Holdings, the parent company of Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and others, said it is also seeing the same increased demand for vehicles and similarly recommended people make their reservations early.

"Providing flexible travel dates and branch pick up locations in your search may also help increase your options," the company said in a statement to ABC News.

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How NJ's biggest city is using guaranteed income to aid pandemic recovery

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(NEWARK, N.J.) -- The most populous city in New Jersey has launched a pilot program to give guaranteed income to some residents, as the pandemic has exacerbated the racial wealth gap and exposed the economic vulnerabilities millions of Americans face.

Experts say success in Newark, New Jersey, a neighbor of New York City, could set a precedent for other communities around the country to follow suit as the nation seeks to equitably recover from the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19.

"We must emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with new purpose, new vision and new ideas to transform our community and truly improve the quality of life of our residents," Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a Democrat, said in a statement earlier this week. "Here, we have an opportunity to directly empower and strengthen hundreds of lives immediately, while also demonstrating how to do so to the entire nation."

The Newark Movement for Economic Equity, launched by Baraka on Monday, is a two-year research study that will give unconditional cash payments to economically vulnerable residents. The pilot program is starting with just 30 residents, but is set to expand to 400 residents in the fall. To qualify, participants must be Newark residents who are at least 18 and have income levels at or below 200% of the federal poverty threshold.

To start, participants will receive $6,000 per year -- with half receiving payments on a bi-weekly basis and half receiving payments twice yearly.

Some $2.2 million to date in private funds from local philanthropic groups and beyond have been raised to support the pilot program, and a statement from the mayor’s office said they are continuing to seek donors for the initiative.

If it is successful, the group has said on its website it anticipates it will be funded through state or federal money.

The median household income in Newark was $35,199 according to 2019 Census data, with more than 27% of the population living in poverty. Census data also shows that more than 50% of the residents identify as Black.

The program was launched in collaboration with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national program spearheading guaranteed income pilot programs across the U.S., and the research study will be led by the Center for Guaranteed Income Research (CGIR) at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice.

"Guaranteed income is essentially just an income floor, an agreement that we decide individuals should not fall beneath," Stacia West, the director and co-founder of the Center for Guaranteed Income Research and a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, told ABC News.

She said they started their experiment to study guaranteed income in 2017 in a program that eventually launched in Stockton, California, dubbed the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. Currently, they have more than 20 pilot programs for guaranteed income in communities across the country.

"The best ones are the ones that are completely community-based, and I think that's what you see here in Newark," she said. "The mayor's team partnered with local community-based organizations to identify a group of individuals that they felt were really struggling the most economically, both pre-pandemic and throughout it, and those happen to be individuals that are housing insecure."

The pilot program is especially targeting residents who are formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, undocumented or aging out of the foster care system, according to a statement from the mayor's office.

"In 2017, people were like, 'You all are are crazy, you can't just give people $500 a month,'" West recalled. "We have a lot of entrenched narratives, that are frankly rooted in anti-Blackness, that suggests that people are somehow going to misuse the money."

West said the Center for Guaranteed Income Research, however, has seen "a really dramatic return on investment" for guaranteed income.

"We saw more people moving from unemployment or underemployment to full employment," she said. "We followed people who were meeting the criteria for depression and anxiety, suddenly feeling much better, no longer meeting those clinical criteria."

In the Stockton program, they found that 28% of the recipients had full-time employment when the program officially launched in February 2019. One year later, however, 40% of the recipients of the guaranteed income were employed full-time.

Meanwhile, the control group in the same experiment saw just a 5% increase in full-time employment over the same one-year period -- jumping from 32% of the control group employed full-time to 37%.

Their preliminary data comes as the nation debates whether enhanced government aid via unemployment benefits is disrupting the labor market by leading to less people working.

West said she hopes the Newark initiative, one of the largest cities in the pilot programs, could set a model for other cities to follow suit.

"The point is to test out a policy proof-of-concept, to make good science-based policy that results in better health, economic and social justice outcomes," she said. "So if what we see not only from Newark but from the other 26 pilots that we're running is that individuals seem to be doing better in terms of those domains of health, education, economics, how they're doing parenting their children -- then why would you not scale up the policy?"

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New online grocer Umamicart connects consumers with beloved Asian food products

Andrea Xu

(NEW YORK) -- During the pandemic, Andrea Xu found a new way to tap into her Asian heritage and help connect consumers to the flavors, ingredients and dishes that are deeply rooted in her culture's cuisine.

The young entrepreneur spoke to ABC News' Good Morning America about how her unique culinary experience growing up to Chinese parents in Spain before living in the U.S. for a decade shaped her tastes and sparked an idea to launch her own food business this March.

Umamicart is an online grocery store that delivers hundreds of hand-curated Asian-owned products. From fruits and veggies to cuts of meat and traditional pantry staples, the selection of products highlight and celebrate the endlessly diverse world of Asian American culture and cuisine.

Xu started her career in finance at Goldman Sachs before a stint at a venture capital firm, but she said, "A lot of me didn't feel like that's what I wanted to dedicate my life to."

"I just kept going back to being interested in small businesses and making offline things online, because that's what I grew up seeing my parents struggle with," she said. "I just always ended up more interested in food and thinking about how hard it was to access Asian food and wanting to work with mom and pop suppliers, so I took a leap of faith and started Umamicart."

When she built her small-but-mighty team of five people based in Brooklyn, New York, she said they all had the same pain points in common: "accessibility to ingredients that our parents used for their cooking in one place and ingredients that we've picked up along the way."

"I think there's an interesting intersection for people like myself who have Asian heritage, but didn't grow up in Asia," she explained. "I feel like we're very picky about the flavor, because we grew up eating it -- but we don't always know exactly what goes in every dish -- but the stuff in the mainstream grocer isn't exactly what we want."

Like others who may have access to local stores, Xu said she always gravitates towards going to Chinatown or Koreatown. But she also acknowledged "that's not always accessible or realistic to think that you're going to be able to go all the time -- so in between you're sort of settling for the swaps -- if you don't have time to procure the right ingredients."

Enter Umamicart, whose goal is to "sort of take that burden of authenticity off for people," Xu said, by curating thoughtfully sourced products "that represent Asian brands and makers -- from suppliers we love and think super highly of and we think that's the product mix that our consumers will really like."

"The concept of authenticity is really nuanced," Xu continued. "I'm not the domain expert for Chinese food for sure, but who really is or defines that? For my parents, having their Chinese restaurant in Spain, they definitely had this burden where there was certain dishes they had to carry -- when in reality, why couldn't they serve what was super personal and that they liked?"

Xu works with an array of local suppliers, offline mom and pop-run markets and more who could bring traditional southeast Asian flavors and ingredients to the site.

"We started working on this in the midst of the pandemic, so it was pretty hard to meet them in person, and a lot of them don't have online channels," she said. "It was a labor of love building trust and explaining the value proposition to them and that we're not a site where we're going to charge them a super high fee -- rather work with them to highlight their products and build a good partnership."

Xu and her team first start with products they want for specific cuisines like Chinese, Korean and Japanese, then identify and meet suppliers, then sample and choose a product mix.

Here are a few of Xu's favorites and best sellers on Umamicart: sashimi grade seafood options; Crave Natural oatmeals, produced by a fellow female-founded company that come in multiple Asian flavors like red bean and taro; Er jing tiao chili, which is the most popular variety of chili in Sichuan and used to make chili crisp and oil; Japanese dashi; and snacks, particularly shrimp crackers.

While there are other Asian retailers with online presences, Xu said her goal was to make it more than just a convenience point of putting a catalog of products on a website.

"It was more about celebrating the cooking behind it, celebrating these flavors and making a good experience," she said.

For AAPI Heritage Month, Umamicart partnered with a selection of its favorite Asian heritage brands to showcase their histories and entry into the U.S. market. The well-recognized food brands will offer exclusive discounts, giveaways and recipes for a month of fun and delicious treats.

The five brands include Myojo USA, Lee Kum Kee, Otafuku, Calbee and IRVINS, and a portion of Umamicart's proceeds during May will be donated to Send Chinatown Love and Heart of Dinner.

The company currently delivers locally in New York City and states in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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Pipeline cyberattack fuels panic buying, gas shortages, hike in prices

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(WASHINGTON) -- Gas stations are running out of fuel in Southeastern cities and long lines are forming across the country as panic buying ensues following the crippling cyberattack on the nation's top fuel pipeline network.

Ashish Desai, an employee at BP station in Charlotte, North Carolina, said Tuesday was chaotic.

"We had people waiting before we even got here," Desai said, adding that cars began lining up around 6:30 a.m.

He said a handful of pumps were shut down around 2 p.m., but eventually they were all closed and it was unclear when the next fuel delivery would be made.

"It could be tomorrow; it could be next week. I don't know," he told ABC News.

The Southeastern U.S. is feeling the worst impact. The Colonial Pipeline that is now offline is responsible for delivering more than 70% of the transportation fuels supply to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, according a homeland security bulletin obtained by ABC News.

Georgia and North Carolina have already issued emergency declarations. In North Carolina, 9% of gas stations were without fuel, according to GasBuddy analyst Patrick DeHaan. And in Georgia, almost 6% of the state's gas stations were without gasoline, with more than 20% of metro Atlanta gas stations out.

"Much as there was no cause for, say, hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm cautioned Tuesday, "there should be no cause for hoarding gasoline, especially in light of the fact that the pipeline should be substantially operational by the end of this week and over the weekend."

Krisi Ennis, who lives in North Carolina but works in South Carolina, said Tuesday that she had seen the news the night before, but panicked when she noticed the gas station near her job had run out of gas.

"I got lucky," she told ABC News, after waiting for over 40 minutes before finally getting to a pump.

She said there were only two gas stations with fuel available in her area and she paid $60 for 17 gallons of gas.

"You got to get what you can get right now; we got to go to work," Ennis said.

The national gas price stood at $2.98 on Tuesday, an 8-cent increase on the week, according to AAA.

The association said the last time the U.S. saw average prices at $2.99 and higher was November 2014.

Airlines are also feeling the ripple effects of the pipeline shutdown.

American Airlines had to add a fuel stop on two of their daily long-haul flights out of Charlotte, North Carolina.

One American flight that's normally nonstop from Charlotte to Honolulu will now involve a stop in Dallas/Fort Worth, where passengers will have to switch to a different aircraft. The other impacted flight that normally flies direct from Charlotte to London will stop in Boston for additional fuel.

A United Airlines spokesperson told ABC News that their operations are not currently impacted, but that they are tankering fuel into four airports. Tankering involves flying planes with additional fuel into an airport which allows them to avoid or reduce ground refueling. They will fly into Baltimore, Nashville, Greenville-Spartanburg and Savannah.

The Colonial Pipeline's chief executive had indicated the company would decide by the close of business on Wednesday whether it could fully restart the pipeline, Granholm said, but that even if it did, "it will take a few days to ramp up operations."

ABC News' Luke Barr, Josh Margolin, Sam Sweeney, Jade Lawson and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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Will the St. Louis Cardinals make the playoffs this year?